Friday, March 24, 2017

Decay and Disgust in 1664 London -- The Sweet Smell of Decay, a Book Review

Photo: from the book's Goodreads page.

I really liked this book despite its inconsistency. Some parts are very well-written, and some...well, aren't. Very odd. You can get a paragraph or two, or a few pages, with exceptional prose, or description; but then suddenly you get a dead-weight clunker of a paragraph, or sometimes just a line or two. There are shifts in tone, too. Suddenly--and I mean you can hear the screeches--a character becomes shady. Suddenly a scene changes, or you can't see it clearly. Towards the end there's a well-drawn action scene--and then suddenly you're at a trial, and it's very drawn-out. And the main character, Harry Lytle, does this and does that, and seemingly never stops, to do anything, and you realize that can't be, and it all doesn't come together, but it's okay because you're reading about yourself going through the motions as Lytle, and that's enough. In fact, that's the point, and undoubtedly the author's intent.

Very tough to explain.

But despite it all, you have a main character who is likable in his opaqueness. Who is he? What does he do? Not really ever explained, but he's a common enough bloke, and he's supposed to be you, the reader. He's just accessible enough to be us. We're the ones doing what he's doing, seeing what he's seeing. That transition is so seamless, you don't even realize it happened.

1664 London is really the main character, and it is supported well. The mystery isn't really mysterious. (The plot is more of a mystery, if you know what I mean.) It's all explained at the end, not very well, as the bow falls off and isn't neatly tied. But you won't care, because you're there for the sights and sounds of 1664 London, and you will get a lot of that, and you'll like it. The logistics of the ending is a head-scratcher, as are all of the characters when they take off their wigs to check for lice. Everyone's bald, and everything's filthy and gross, and 1664 London is just a disgusting place, where people get hanged but don't die, and their intestines are ripped out and burned and they don't die, and they're then tied hand and foot to horses and ripped apart, and if they still don't die, they're carted in a wheelbarrow to the nearest river and dumped in. And then their heads are stuck on a pike on a bridge or tower. And a prisoner about to die this way soils his pants, and that's described, and you realize that's what you're reading this for--the details, like you're there in 1664 London, and you're happy to be there by reading about it, because you sure as hell wouldn't really want to be there.

That's why this book works. If you like the history of historical fiction more than you like the fiction of historical fiction, you'll like this one. I'm on to the next, A Plague of Sinners.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks -- A Book Review

Photo: cover of the paperback book, from its page.

Very, very well-written account of a young girl's life on Martha's Vineyard and in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1660s. Though the book is more known to be about the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, it is really about this girl and her Puritan family. Narrated by Bethia, the book is a comparison between her life as an Other, and that of a native Wampanoag named Cheeshahteaumauk, called Caleb by Bethia's family after his Indian family dies of disease, probably smallpox. (He dies of disease, too, of consumption, not long after he became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.) This is a book, like all her others, to read and enjoy, and to learn from and emulate if you want to be a writer. I can someday hope to become nearly as good--though that is doubtful--but I cannot become better.

Bethia loves life on the island, despite its hardships. Let me rephrase: She loves the island more than she loves her life on it. Her chores and responsibilities are endless. She loses her parents and her younger sibling, all three in horrible ways. She can read and write and she has intelligence and opinions--all bad in 1660s Puritan Massachusetts, especially on the island. Her daily life, with and without her best friend Caleb, and her family, are equally interesting and distressing to read about.

She follows Caleb and her older brother to Harvard. Her brother is next in line to lead the family and to become a preacher like their father. Except, he's not intelligent, not good in the ways of leadership or human nature. He can't read as well as she, and he can't learn the Bible's languages as well as she. In fact, she's a helluva lot smarter than he is, and they both know it. In fact, Caleb, the "salvage," the other and the lesser in that time, is also smarter than he is in all of these things, and he knows that, too. Despite all this, Bethia goes to Harvard with them because it is her indentured servitude that will pay for her brother's education there, so that he can become more in their society than she can, though everyone knows she deserves it more. She steals a bit of an education while she can, eavesdropping on lessons, learning from the other students, etc., but it is not a life she is destined to overtly benefit from.

In lesser hands, Bethia would fall in love with Caleb, and run away with him, and such, but these are not ordinary hands, and she does not do this. Bethia as a child was confused about her true feelings for Caleb, and maybe she did have what we would call a crush on him for a few years, but overall she outgrows that, and they become perhaps even closer, a brother and sister that would have continued had he not died. She leaves with another man, rather happily, from that Harvard disaster, and lives in Italy for a time, before she comes back and sees Caleb in his final days. The book is told in three parts, the last of which is a bit more sad than perhaps it needed to be, but who am I to judge? It's all enthralling. You'll feel like you're there, and you'll care about everyone.

Brooks clearly is painting a parallel between Bethia's life in 1660s Puritan Massachusetts and that of women in 2000s America. She does this in every work, and continues to do so here. As usual, it is not overt, or heavily done, and you don't feel preached to. This outlook, again as usual, enhances the story and does not detract from it. In fact, that cultural comment is not the story. As always, her story is her story. Bethia and Caleb, two others in a career-long character list of strong others, are her vehicles to tell this story. They themselves are not the story, per se. This is a distinction that all writers trying to say something should understand: your characters tell the story, but your characters are not the story. They drive it, of course; the story is not a river and they the mere floaters. But the story is the tide, and the characters either swim with it, or they swim against it. Brooks is excellent--here, and especially in March, her Pulitzer-winner--at showing the tides of the times she sets her stories in. It is one of the many things she does masterfully.

So this book is a story of the time, but also of our time. There is an other of every time, as we see today. I suspect maybe a female of African-American or Mexican descent is writing a good book about that as I type this.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Get Out -- A Movie Review, Part 2

Note: This is Part 2 of the movie review for Get Out. Yesterday's Part 1 is here.

Photo: from the movie's Wikipedia page. This is what white people like me, whatever that means, thought racists were when I saw this movie in 1988. Turns out, it's a lot more complicated than that. By the way, this movie has more relevance now than it should, so see it if you haven't. And don't expect factual accuracy. It's a depiction, a cinematic dramatization in broad strokes. It's not a documentary.

Yet Get Out says that the awareness of the...nervousness, or political-correctness, or even the awareness of the awareness of a biracial in fact part of the problem. Which of course it is. Maybe someday we'll live in a country where a biracial couple simply doesn't raise any eyebrows, anywhere, in any kind of person, pro or con, friend or foe. That isn't going to happen soon, since we've taken two steps back in this country, but we'll see.

But you can see maybe why this was such a ballsy movie to make. Especially today. Now, cynics that we usually are, we'd expect this movie to maybe--or maybe not--do okay its first weekend, maybe for interest or shock value, and then disappear once blockbusters like Kong and Logan are released at the same time. 

But I'm happy, and a little surprised, to say that it hasn't happened. It's hanging in there, in third place, right with those films. It's grossed over $100 million--on a budget barely over $4 million. Considering that, it's so far been more of a financial hit than Kong: Skull Island or Logan. That's saying something.

And it should be. It is (uncomfortably) funny--but it won't be for those who don't think biracial couples, or the reaction they can elicit from others, is funny. Frankly, if you're racist, you're not going to like this film. But I suspect racists know that, and are staying far away. I've seen shockingly scant mention of it from them in the news and on the internet, but then I'm not an internet crawler. Also, it's a good horror flick, once you get by the horror premise, which you're not really supposed to take seriously to begin with. There is actual unease and tension and suspense. Strangely so, for me, and it wasn't scary, exactly, for me, like other horror films have been. Like, The Exorcist, or The Silence of the Lambs.

So it's a ballsy film, and it's a good film, and it's doing really well, which means it's hit a nerve somewhere, and found a niche. You can expect to see more films like this now, perhaps not as good.

I will leave you with some positive reviews of the movie, which are written more succinctly than this one. They're all taken from the movie's Wikipedia page, which you can click on here.

Richard Roeper gave the film 3.5/4 stars, saying, "[T]he real star of the film is writer-director Jordan Peele, who has created a work that addresses the myriad levels of racism, pays homage to some great horror films, carves out its own creative path, has a distinctive visual style — and is flat-out funny as well." Keith Phipps of Uproxx praised the cast and Peele's direction, noting: "That he brings the technical skill of a practiced horror master is more of a surprise. The final thrill of Get Out — beyond the slow-building sense of danger, the unsettling atmosphere, and the twisty revelation of what’s really going on — is that Peele’s just getting started." Mike Rougeau of IGN gave the film 9/10, and wrote: Get Out's whole journey, through every tense conversation, A-plus punchline and shocking act of violence, feels totally earned. And the conclusion is worth each uncomfortable chuckle and moment of doubt." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone rated Get Out a 3.5/4, and called it: "[A] jolt-a-minute horrorshow laced with racial tension and stinging satirical wit." Scott Mendelson of Forbes praised how the film captures the current zeitgeist called it a "modern American horror classic".

So if this sounds good, or if you like horror/comedies, go see it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Get Out -- A Movie Review

Photo: from the movie's Wikipedia website

Get Out was a ballsy movie to make, considering our present climes. It's a horror movie with a good horror movie ending, but this is no horror movie. It's also a comedy with a message about racism that doesn't hit you over the head, or preach at you. This makes it even more effective. This movie tries to do for racism what Rosemary's Baby and Stepford Wives did for sexism, and it largely succeeds because Jordan Peele, Get Out's producer/director, was aware of those two movies. There's a bit of Kubrick's (and not King's) The Shining in there at the end, too, but luckily that guy doesn't end up like Scatman Crothers did.

I saw this with my better half, and we're both white. (I'm as boring, suburban white as Wonder Bread, but not as fluffy or as wholesome.) We sat next to a bi-racial couple, one white and one black, which is pretty rare for my suburban-hell neck of the woods. (See the movie juxtaposition I made there?) Normally this would not be relevant, but, unfortunately, for this review, and for this movie, it is. Just a sign o' the times.

A quick review of the movie: After a quick prologue of a young black man getting kidnapped, another young black man (the main character) and his pretty white girlfriend are off to a rural home to introduce him to her family. She hasn't told them he's black, by the way, which you know is not going to turn out well.

So the racial theme comes and it's played for laughs. This is ingenious, and if you think Peele is only playing it for laughs, then you don't know what kind of serious cultural change laughs can do. Like, All in the Family and Richard Pryor changed some views in the 70s and 80s. The point works because it's played funny. And in the funny, we feel the tension and disquiet, and realize it's not funny. This is a good movie for a collegiate class about film, comedy and horror. I'm going to let the following critic of The Guardian tell it, because I'm just fumbling here:

Lanre Bakare of The Guardian commented on this, saying, "The villains here aren't southern rednecks or neo-Nazi skinheads, or the so-called 'alt-right'. They're middle-class white liberals. The kind of people who read this website. The kind of people who shop at Trader Joe's, donate to the ACLU and would have voted for Obama a third time if they could. Good people. Nice people. Your parents, probably. The thing Get Out does so well – and the thing that will rankle with some viewers – is to show how, however unintentionally, these same people can make life so hard and uncomfortable for black people. It exposes a liberal ignorance and hubris that has been allowed to fester. It's an attitude, an arrogance which in the film leads to a horrific final solution, but in reality leads to a complacency that is just as dangerous."

In other words, the target audience was, in some ways, people like me, who like to think they're racially aware, and who like to think they're helping the cause, in whatever way they can. Now, I'm not liberal like this passage, thank God, but I do donate to the ACLU and I would've voted for Obama again. I don't shop at Trader Joe's. (In fact, I don't do the food shopping at all, because I'd buy just cereal, bananas, apples, blueberries, and green olives.) But it's also true that I don't know how to relate to someone who's a victim of racism. For example, I realized in my last movie review that I didn't even see why Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was racist itself (an irony, since it effectively shows how racism is a [see title]) until I read Chinua Achebe's speech about it. (Achebe was kinda right, kinda not, but more right than not. And, by the way, who am I to speak about racism?)

This is the point of the movie, which is hidden in trappings of comedy and horror. I can speak of racism only in the sense that I've seen it; I've written and spoken against it; I don't know what the hell it's all about; I don't know why so many people deny it exists; I don't get why people don't understand why African-Americans and other minorities are angry; I don't get why Samuel L. Jackson says Daniel Kaluuya, the main actor, isn't "black enough," and I don't get why I don't get that, because I get what such people think it means; and I also realize that I don't know enough about it to criticize Samuel L. Jackson, which I also realize isn't a smart thing to do to begin with, about anything at all, because he's scary. I used to think that racists only lived in the South, in a Mississippi Burning kind of way, but now I see that it's everywhere, including in the recent court decision about how Texas unconstitutionally re-districted itself to disillusion minority voters; about how voting ID laws in many states--including those as far north as PA and North Carolina--were purposely passed by Republicans to make it harder for the poor (reads: Democrat) to vote. I see that racism exists, or used to, in zoning laws, for God's sake, around here.

And in truth, Get Out is probably a more realistic depiction of racism than Mississippi Burning ever was. Maybe. Who am I to say?

This movie review of Get Out concludes tomorrow...

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Kong: Skull Island -- Movie Review and Kong Flick Comparison, Part 3

Note: this entry is the last of 3 about Kong: Skull Island. Part 1 is here, two days ago. Part 2 is here, from yesterday.

Photo: Kong and Apocalypse Now Crossover Shot. (Don't ask where the natives got the hydraulics necessary to build this.) From this IMDb page.

The movie might not make you feel smarter, but you'll perhaps nod along with some cultural references and homages, unless you were born after, say, 2001.

First, as you see in the poster above, there's a nod to 1986's Platoon. Speaking of war movies, there are a few very obvious nods to Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness. We've got major characters named Conrad (after Heart of Darkness's author, Joseph Conrad) and Marlow (after the main character in both Conrad's book and Francis Ford Coppola's movie, which takes place in Viet Nam [another nod] and is based on Conrad's book).

And the movie's most famous line--"The horror...the horror..."--is lifted directly off the pages of Conrad's book, without credit. Ugh.

Photo: The famous Apocalypse Now poster, from its IMDb page

If that wasn't enough, John C. Reilly's character is obviously Dennis Hopper's zany (and drugged-up) photographer from Apocalypse Now--a direct comparison. Almost an exact copy. And both novel and film is mostly about a boat trip up a river to capture someone who's thought to be very dangerous--and is--but who also has a shocking truth to tell, and whose anger and possible insanity is distressingly easy to understand and relate to. He is not what he seems, or what you've been told he is. Or what you'd expect. That's Kong in this movie, which you'll definitely see.

And Kong is Kurtz from the book and movie. And Kong and Kurtz are both worshiped by the jungle's natives (Conrad's Kurtz, from the book, is in the Congo, while the movie Kurtz is in Viet Nam.) And the choppers in the movie's poster is a direct reference to the famous opening of Apocalypse Now, with its choppers, and all three works, the book and the two Kong movies, all have the same theme: Mankind has a heart of darkness to all living things, including mankind.

Samuel L. Jackson's character is a mad Ahab from Moby Dick, but is even more a direct copy of his man-loving, man-is-all-powerful character from Deep Blue Sea. This is such an exact duplicate of that role that I'm a bit surprised that he hasn't come into more critical panning. True, Christoph Waltz won two Oscars for essentially playing the same role in consecutive Quentin Tarantino movies (and his turn in Inglorious Basterds was much better), but, still...Maybe Jackson would've been criticized more if his name had been, say, Brie Larson.

But I'm over it.

So if you like creature movies, and if you remember the Creature Double Feature flicks with a little fondness, and if you know your war movies, literature, and cultural references, or if you just like a good popcorn flick that's very fast-paced, that looks great, that has a directorial flair of its own, and that looks like a franchise that promises more of the same, go see it. It's right up there with Spielberg's original Jurassic Park, and with the latest Jurassic World, and with Jackson's King Kong, though maybe it finishes just a notch below these in overall value. Still, well worth your time.