About Last Night

Title: About Last Night

Director/Stars: Rob Lowe (Actor), Demi Moore (Actor), Edward Zwick (Director)

Genre: Romantic Comedy (R!)

Year: 1986

Watched: March 27, 2011

Summary: Holds up brilliantly.

 

I’ve always loved this movie. Perhaps I’m a romantic at heart. Perhaps it’s the David Mamet dialogue, or maybe Demi’s just hot. I’ve probably seen it 5-6 times, but not in the last 20 years. Although I still have the laserdisk somewhere. In any case, it’s out on blu-ray now, so being on my 80s kick I figured I’d see how it held up.

Perfectly.

The crisp blu-ray transfer helped, taking out the sometimes distracting poor color and funny old film grain legacy of old videotape transfers. But I got to remember what I liked so much about the film. And not just Demi’s nipples. First of all, there is the fact that this is an R-rated romantic comedy. How many others even exist? It’s sexy, the dialogue is raunchy and funny. Brilliant in fact. Particularly as delivered by James Belushi‘s over the top performance as the sexist best friend, or Elizabeth Perkins going toe to toe in bitchy counterpoint (made all the more amusing by having seen her in Weeds).

The most important thing about this film is the pitch perfect ebb and flow of the relationship between the two leads. It’s not the relationship everyone might have had, but it’s an accurate one. They feel like solidly real people. So in some ways, fairly unique among Romantic Comedies, there is truth here. Not every truth, but a specific one nonetheless. The film also has the audacity to cover nearly a year, and do it well, giving the rise and fall and then maybe rise again of this couple some actual weight and believability. You feel like they’ve changed and there’s been passage of time. Far too many films in the genre feel like about three dates, where the writers, not the characters, are building the relationship.

I loved the 80s outfits too. The Reboks, the sweaters and baggy shirts tied with belts, the high hip jeans. Sure they look silly, but… It’s also interesting to note the subtle culture changes that 25 years have wrought. The guy characters are allowed to be guys (and sexist) in ways that would be avoided today. I don’t really think men have changed, but Hollywood has.

Tithe – A Modern Faerie Tale

Title: Tithe – A Modern Faerie Tale

Author: Holly Black

Genre: Paranormal YA

Length: 66,000 words, 310 pages

Read: March 13, 2011

Summary: Well written and evocative.

 

This is the second Holly Black book I’ve read. I enjoyed White Cat (REVIEW HERE) a lot and so I went back to read her debut novel. And liked it even more.

The similarities are striking. Both are short YA books, with nice prose and likable main characters thrown into ‘weird’ paranormal situations. Both have the action so condensed as to occasionally be confusing. Both wrap themselves up in the last quarter in a way that compromises the believability of the secondary characters. Both have unhappy but not completely tragic endings. While White Cat’s premise is perhaps a tad more original, I found Tithe‘s creepy fairy flavor more to my taste. Not that I didn’t like the first, but I really liked certain things about the second.

Tithe is written in third person past, with the protagonist Kaye dominating the POV. Mysteriously, approximately 5-10% is from the point of view of her friend Corny, and about 2% from the romantic interest. These outside POVs felt wrong, and at least in the Kindle version, no scene or chapter breaks announced the transitions. Every time one happened I was confused for a paragraph or two and knocked out of the story. Still, said story was more than good enough to overcome this minor technical glitch.

Kaye is an unhappy 16 year-old with a loser mom. When they move back to New Jersey she is rapidly involved with the Fey, discovers she’s a green skinned pixie, and gets drawn into a conflict between the Seelie and Unseelie (rival fairy) courts. It’s a fun read, and the prose is fast and evocative of the fey mood. Ms Black seemed to have done at least some research and the feel is quite good. The loose descriptive style sketches some rather fantastic creatures and scenarios, and that works. There is some darkness (which I like), and wham bam death of secondary characters without the proper emotional digestion. There is sexuality, but no sex (boo hiss!).

But I really like the way she handled the fairies. There isn’t a lot of description, but what there was left me filling in my own detailed, sordid, and mysterious collage of imagery.

I was loving the first two third of the book, and then it pivoted a bit and lost me a little. Don’t get me wrong, I still liked it, but the last third felt sketchier. The author had a bunch of double takes and betrayals on her outline, and it felt to me that it didn’t really matter if the secondary characters got to be true to themselves — they just followed the script. The protagonists best friend dies in like two seconds, and there is barely any reaction. Everyone also seemed to roll way too easily with the rather gigantic punches (as in Fairies are real). And to be darn good at picking up new powers in no time at all. This is a typical issue, and very hard to address perfectly, but it always bugs me when magic seems too easy. White Cat had the same final act issues.

It’s still a fun book — way above average — with nice prose and breakneck pace. But the potential for great gave way to merely very good.

Game of Thrones – The Houses

With the premier of Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on what is perhaps my all time favorite Fantasy series, fast approaching, the network has been releasing all sorts of goodies. Now I’ve posted about this before, but these books, and it looks like the show, are so darkly delicious that I fell I must share.

Power (above) is new trailer.

Fear and Blood (above) is another new trailer for the show in general.

Then we have a whole series of videos on some of the most important Great Houses. Like Dune before it, Game of Thrones is a story about the interplay of politics and loyalty among a number of great factions. This was frequently true during the late middle ages, and to some extent the series is based a bit on the War of the Roses.

The Starks (above) are the moral center of the story.

House Baratheon holds the throne… for now.

The Lannister’s you love to hate — except for Tyrion who rules.

House Targaryen knows all about dragons.

Above is a more detailed video on Jaime Lannister.

and above Robb Stark.

Above is Littlefinger.

and above about the world in general.

For a review of episode 1, click here.

Book and Movie Review: The English Patient

The English PatientTitle: The English Patient

Author: Michael Ondaatje

Genre: Literary Historical Drama

Length: 82,000 words, 300 pages, 162 min

Read: Spring, 2010

Summary: Lyrical.

_

I had seen the film when it came out (and several times after) and it’s long been one of my absolute favorites. So to that effect the novel has been sitting on my shelf for over ten years waiting to be read and this spring I finally got around to it. In some ways I’m glad I waited because I wouldn’t have appreciated the prose as much years ago. The voice, told in lightweight third person present, and lacking nearly all mechanical constructs (like dialog quoting or tagging, preamble explanations of scene transitions, etc.) has a breezy lyrical quality to it. It can only be described as delectable. There is a feel of watching a beautiful but flickery film, a series of stuccato images flash through your head as you read it. It’s worth quoting to illustrate:

“She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill towards the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.”

The plot — such as it is — involves a war battered Canadian nurse lingering in Italy at the close of WWII. She has isolated herself in a half destroyed villa and cares for a mysterious burn patient who is dying and too fragile to move. The book focuses on the nurse as its protagonist, concentrating on her relationship with an Indian (via the British army) bomb disposal tech and her efforts to come to terms with the war and loss. The patient slowly unravels his own tale to her. It is his story, set mostly in Egypt before and during the start of the war, which is the primary focus of the movie. In the book it serves more to offset and focus the nurse’s point of view.

I am blown away by the effort of translating this book for the screen. Frankly, although I loved the novel, I like the film better — this is rare. Anthony Minghella managed the near impossible, translating this gorgeous prose into an equally lyrical visual style. It’s less stuccato, more “lush and languid.” Film is a more linear medium, and Minghella focuses the story to create grander more visual arcs. To do this, he expanded the patient’s epic story of love and loss in pre-war Egypt. I’m a sucker for Egypt, the exotic, the British Empire in decay, and worlds that no longer exist. This story feels bigger than the nurse’s, being as it is more tied in with history and international events. But in both you have a powerful sense of people fighting for their passions, both interpersonal and intellectual, despite the baggage of past choices and the buffeting blows delivered by the unstoppable forces of history.

Both variants of this story are inherently complex, ambiguous, and emotional works. Look for no answers here, just gorgeously rendered questions.

The Name of the Wind

Title: The Name of the Wind

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: High Fantasy

Length: 255,000 words, 720 pages

Read: May 2008 & Feb 28-Mar 2, 2011

Summary: Best new fantasy of recent years.

_

In 2008, I read this 722 page novel in Xian China during a single sleepless night, and I reread it just now for the second time in preparation for the sequel (released this week): The Wise Man’s Fear. NOTW is a beautiful book. Of all the Fantasy I’ve read in the last 15 or so years, this is perhaps second best after The Song of Ice and Fire. But that’s not to say that they have much in common, other than both being good Fantasy. George R. Martin‘s books are full of characters, POVs, violence, politics, and a darkly realistic sensibility. NOTW is much more focused and relies on more traditional Fantasy tropes. How focused can a 700 page novel be? Not very, but it is good, and it concentrates on a small number of characters and a single (albiet meandering) storyline.

Kvothe is the protagonist. He’s a young man of many many talents, of no means whatsoever, who winds his way from the actor’s troupe to the mean streets to the magical University and to (implied) great and terrible things.

If I have any beef with the book, it’s that the meta premise of the tired hero telling his story is too drawn out. This volume opens in the “present day,” where very little happens except to set us up for the life story of the hero, which is brilliant. Much like Lord of the Rings or Hyperion, the reader must slog for a bit to get to the gold. In this case about 50 pages in. But the slogging isn’t exactly painful because Rothfuss’s prose is lyrical and masterful. Seriously, it’s a wonder given the tangents, bloated conversations (the dialog is great but not efficient), and the like that this book is so easy to read — but it is. Damn easy, even the second time.

The world and the hero juggle uniqueness and heavy — but delicious — borrowing from classic Fantasy of the best sort. I sniffed out a bit of Ursula K. Le Guin (think Wizard of Earthsea), Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time), and who knows how many others. The world is extremely well developed, and feels big, but it doesn’t doesn’t have the camp and cheese of Wheel of Time (although it does pay homage). I love origin stories and I very much enjoyed Kvothe’s journey. He’s a great character: humble, proud, skilled, lucky, unlucky all at once, but in a fairly believable way. Perhaps the most important relationship in the book (and there are actually relatively few) is the romance, and it has a tragic quality that feels very refreshing, and slightly reminiscent of the best of Orson Scott Card (think his old stuff like Song Master) or Dan Simmons.

The magic is very unique and interesting, and we focus on it quite a bit, as this is a story that spends a lot of time in the Arcane Academy. This ain’t no Hogwarts either, it feels altogether more mysterious and dangerous. There are several different magic systems interwoven in what is a world overall fairly light on magic. But this is also a world that feels a bit more technological than most Fantasy, with larger cities, a little more like antiquity than the Middle Ages. The “magical bad guys” have a nice character and bit of mystery to them. I don’t like all my mystery explained. There is a lot of music and theatre in here too, and that just helps heighten the lyricism.

But what exactly makes this book so good?

Proving my geek-cred, swapping some Crash Bandicoots for signatures with Patrick Rothfuss

Fundamentally I think Rothfus is just a great writer, and a very good world builder. I don’t think he’s a great plotter. The story drifts along, relies a bit on coincidence and circumstance, and the end fizzles then pops back out of the interior story and waits for the sequel. But that doesn’t really matter, because the prose, world, and characters keep you enjoying every page.

CLICK HERE for my review of the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear.

Machete – The best B-movie ever?

Title: Machete

Director/Stars: Danny Trejo (Actor), Robert DeNiro, Jessica Alba, etc.  Robert Rodriguez (Director)

Genre: Exploitationist Action

Watched: February 27, 2011

Summary: Pure action and camp fun.

 

Derived from a fake preview in Rodriguez and Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature, this film is just rollicking camp fun. The premise: that ex-federale Danny Trejo (the ugliest guy to grace the silver screen since The Elephant Man) is lured into a crazy scheme by various right wing racist nut-jobs and has to kick (and get some) ass in various escapes, revenge, etc.

One of the best things is the roster of amusing casting. These aren’t just cameos either: Robert DeNiro, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Steven Seagal, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Linsay Lohan and more.

The plot, as such, is thin, and gratuitously cheesy. The characters however, live large, and the action is fun and inventive and sometimes delightfully nasty.

Before the opening credits, Trejo manages to use his trademark weapon to amputate at least a dozen limbs, leading him to rescue a stark naked girl whose cel phone and weapons are stored where the sun don’t shine. Before this scene ends a fat-ass Steven Seagal uses a katana to behead Trejos wife (standard revenge setup). This pretty much sets the tone for the entire film. My favorite gross-out bit is a bad guy whose intestines (still connected) are used by Machete as a rope to swing out the window and onto the floor below.

Nothing about the movie is realistic. The villains are deliciously over the top, and their crazy scheme to raise drug prices by building an electrified fence between Mexico and Texas purely amusing. People get shot in the head and live. Everything resolves in one of those typical Rodriguez giant shootouts.

What makes the film so fun — besides the crazy action — is the unadulterated camp factor of each of the characters. From Cheech’s merlot-drinking shotgun wielding priest to Robert DeNiro’s evil racist state senator (there are a few of those in real life too!).

Rodriguez just should have gone as over the top with his nudity as with his violence. Too much cutting for a work this gratuitous!

Book Review: The Road to Tyburn

Title: The Road to Tyburn

Author: Christopher Hibbert

Genre: Biography / History

Read: Feb 18, 2011

Summary: Really fun glimpse into a sordid little world.

_

In the last 2-3 weeks I’ve read at least 8-10 books on 18th century London, many on the criminal element of said city. Lest one think I’ve got an unnatural fascination with antique crime this is research for my new novel (more on that here). This book, however, was a standout, and despite being long out of print is well worth mentioning.

It’s short (160 pages), and very lively, reading as fast as a novel. It does a very good job characterizing the bizarre underworld of 1720s London, pretty much that which is depicted in the engravings of William Hogarth. London of this time was a city unique on earth, transitioning out of the 17th century’s religious zealousy and into the head long rush toward industrialization. It was a place of great freedom, great crime, great industry, and an infrastructure and society nearly overwhelmed by change. Pretty damn fun, and why I chose it for my novel.

Jack Sheppard — not to be confused with the protagonist of Lost — is a colorful character I hadn’t previously encountered. More or less just a charismatic young house burglar, he entered the public eye in a huge way — foreshadowing today’s media fascination with crime and criminals — by being a prison breaker of staggering talent. Nothing could keep the guy down, tied, barred, locked, or whatever. He broke out of the notorious Newgate prison no less than three times! (and several others as well).

As a working class, non-violent, handsome, achem… thief, seemingly able to escape punishment at will, he captured the hearts and minds of his fellow Londoners. For me, one of the book’s great moments is the description of his insanely daring and audacious fourth escape, known even then as the “Great Escape.” The guy used only a single bent and rusty nail to extract himself from a huge pile of irons, fetters, and chains, broke open a masonry chimney, climbed up, picked and opened five heavily fortified prison doors, leapt across rooftops, and descended great distances on a rope made of bedding. If anyone ever earned an escape, it was this guy!

Too bad they hung him when they caught him the last time. But he seemed to enjoy the attention and show.

The book does a great job telling Jack’s life story intermixed with really vivid and quick background sketches. The story of the the infamous Jonathan Wild, self proclaimed “Thief-taker General of Great Britain and Ireland” is also an eye-opener as to the origins and history of organized crime. As the book states, no other criminal mastermind in 300 years has ever had London crime (a pretty notorious city) so well organized!