Monday, May 27, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Photo: One of the many movie posters, from its Wikipedia page

I'd been apprehensive about seeing this movie because the first re-boot hadn't overly impressed me.  In fact, I don't actually remember too much of it.  I remember that I'd thought it was okay, but nothing great, nothing memorable.  I'd also thought it was a tiny bit blasphemous, but actual Trekkies were much more concerned about that than I.  I don't remember the Uhura/Spock relationship from the show or from any of the other movies.  Was that created just in the re-boot?  Someone needs to tell me.  As unemotional as Spock had been in the show and in the movies, I couldn't (and still can't) see him in any kind of romantic relationship.  But, whatever.  That's minor, too.  The biggest thing was how bleh I felt about the first one.  Not something I wanted to waste about $23 for two tickets.

But I was wrong.  This time the movie was very well written, very well directed--and just very well-done.  I won't get too much involved in the plot, since such things are secondary in movies like this, anyway.  But the special effects are outstanding.  The acting is good--which you couldn't really say from any of the other films, besides maybe Patrick Stewart, who cannot act badly.  The best actor in this movie plays the bad guy, if you will, and I won't tell you who the character is--and the reviews shouldn't have, either.  (His smile is one of the creepiest in recent memory, and the way he made it a perfect V-formation is super-weird.)  I will tell you, though, that you should see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (that sort of gives it away, doesn't it), or you won't get how great the writing and mirror-image homages are for the last twenty minutes or so of the film.  Many people sitting around me got most of them--including an homage to the famous scene of Shatner / Kirk completely losing his sh*t and having a conniption as he screams, "KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!"  This got a huge laugh.  (Those around me thought the movie was much funnier than I did, though I will say that it was pleasantly amusing, even if I never actually laughed out loud like many of them did.)  Remember that these are homages done in reverse here, which was done so well that I didn't even think until much later about how catastrophically bad it could have backfired on the moviemakers (mostly J.J. Abrams) had it not worked.  But it did work, and really, really well.

Having said all this, I have to close by saying that I am more than a bit bothered by the extreme mayhem and death in this movie--all of which was almost blissfully ignored by the main characters.  There was a (rather dim-witted) security guard sucked into space, though he was just doing his job.  Rather innocent dimwits like this guy are often saved in movies like this, by being warned of a problem, or conveniently knocked out, or whatever.  There were a million ways this guy could've been saved.  But there were also hundreds, if not thousands (or maybe even tens of thousands, depending on how populated this very over-populated city and world was) of people who died when hundreds of buildings were destroyed at the end by a crashing spaceship that plowed through an entire metropolis, much like how the Enterprise plowed through the land in one of the Next Generation movies, before the Nexus killed everyone on the planet (for a short time, in an alternate universe).  Anyway, such ignored killing and mayhem makes the whole thing like a silly comic book, which this movie was very seriously trying not to be.  This series is taking itself very seriously, indeed--even with the lines some in the audience found very funny.

So go see this movie, and see it in the theatre because this is certainly a big-screen flick, and marvel at all of the things that I did, and have a (mostly) good time like I did.  And feel free to comment if all of the ignored death and mayhem didn't bother you.  (It's the ignoring of the thousands of deaths that bothered me the most, not that it happened.)  But see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to fully appreciate the last twenty minutes or so--and, if possible, take a look at the episode of the series that all the polls say the audience liked the most, "The Trouble with Tribbles." 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr

Photo: Book's cover from its Wikipedia page

Almost as quick a read as its predecessor, this one is told from the point of view of Stevie, from his cigarette shop, as he looks back on his past.  The cast is all here, and a few more characters show up, including one of the all-time bad women you'll ever read about--who unfortunately reminded me of a few people I used to know, but that's a review for another day.

NYC in the late 1890s is brought to vivid life again, but with a bit more of a bittersweet tinge to the tale, as Stevie also writes about his love at the time, a drug addict / prostitute who never had a chance to go straight.  The very strong theme here is the role of females in that world, and, no doubt, in this one, and what, if any, males in a male-dominated era (then and now) may have helped cause some women to kill their children.  The socio-politics described are too complex to go into here, but they are not easily dismissed or ignored, and the reader may recognize some of what is described.  The villainess is almost as much of a victim as the actual victims--so much so that I looked up the real-life women mentioned by the author as topics of research in his acknowledgement section.  These real-life women all killed their own children, and many of their men, to such a degree that you'd have to wonder if anyone in the legal or medical communities were paying attention.  One woman brought one child to the hospital, dead.  Then another.  Then another...until all twelve were dead.  Another woman killed off her children, and literally dozens of men who came to her farm to win her favors--favors that were advertised in area newspapers.  This woman was often seen digging in the middle of the night in her hog pen--and she'd had dozens of heavy trunks delivered to her property.

At any rate, this one has more than a few things in common thematically with my own WIP, including how women are treated in a male-dominated society.  This novel also ends with a slow declining arc, more than a little bit after the main conflict has been resolved, just as mine does.

Anyway, great writing (except for an aboriginal hitman that didn't work for me), great historical detail, and some strong wistful nostalgia at the end that readers older than 30 should recognize, all coalesce in a novel that was quickly read and thoroughly appreciated.

Published in 1997, this has been the last in the series, and you have to wonder why.  Both were tremendous bestsellers, and this second one mentions frequently that the group was involved in many other cases, both all together and, for Sara Howard, by herself, so there's plenty of other potential material to write about...and yet Caleb Carr never has.  Here's to hoping he comes out with another one soon.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Alienist by Caleb Carr

 Photo: Bellevue Hospital Ambulance, New York Times, 1895--from the Wikipedia page of The Alienist.

Been a few weeks away with illness, exhaustion, overwork, and some good headway on my novel and some shorter pieces.  Sort of an odd time lately, mostly without focus.  I've been reading six or seven books, and writing too many things at once--and not completing any reading or writing at all.  My sleeping patterns have been all screwed up, and...blah blah blah.  I'm tired of my own whining, but it is what it is.

That changed with The Alienist, a novel so well-written that I finished all 597 pages in just a few days, even waking up early to read it.  I read it through my cluster-headache on Sunday; I read it through an otherwise scattered-minded few weeks.  It cut through all that and straightened my focus and psyche out--for quite awhile, I hope.

I'd heard great things about this for a long time, and finally I gave it a go, with regret, since I'm trying to finish about six other things, like I said.  But I'm glad I did.

This novel has a lot going for it.  It's told in a first-person limited POV, by a reporter narrator who's good at describing his world without making it seem like he's purposely describing his world.  But he is, and he needs to for us, because he's describing 1896 NYC (and a little of D.C. and New Paltz, NY, too).  Caleb Carr does a fantastic job making this world interesting and alive, and the crimes he covers--and the investigation they cause--are top-notch.  (But not for the squeamish.) Essentially Carr describes the first wrinkles of what has become known as criminal profiling, which basically can be boiled down to analyzing the crime, and then asking yourself, What kind of person could have committed this crime, exactly this way, in this exact place and time?

As readers of this blog should know, I've long been interested in this kind of thing myself, so it was very cool to see some characters using these methods as the focus of their investigations.  In addition to profiling the crime, they profile a letter the serial murderer sends to a victim's mother--with some handwriting analysis as well, also new at the time--and there's a lot of attention paid to the earliest childhood years of many criminals in the book, also a cornerstone of criminal profiling.  Abusive and criminal parents will, more often than not, create abusive and criminal offspring.  This sort of implies that it's more nurture than nature, and that free will isn't all that strong, either, but that's a misreading that many people today--and many characters in the book--suffer from.

I'll leave that to the reader.  Bottom line is, if you like historical fiction, or crime/criminal investigation, or the 1890s in general, or if--like me--you happen to like all of those things combined, than this book is the one for you.  As I've said about some of Stephen King's books, there's something to be said for a 597-page book that's read in about three days.

As I mentioned, it was so good that it straightened out my psyche for a few days, and made me feel more complete, more whole, more in my own realm--whatever the hell that is.  Next up: his follow-up, The Angel of Darkness.

As the footnote at the beginning of the book says, an alienist is today's psychiatrist, or mental health researcher, as someone who needed to speak to someone like this (because there were few private practices in those days, so most people, especially the poor, would have to be committed to a facility or to a hospital to speak to one) was thought to be alienated, both from their society and from their own true natures.  (Sort of like how I've felt the last few weeks, though not to the extremes you'll read here.)  So a helper to these people would be an alienist.

Caleb Carr himself is quite an interesting guy, as is the story surrounding Lucius Carr, his (in)famous father.  It seems as if his father stabbed to death a man who was hitting on him, and William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac helped him dispose of the body and of some evidence before Carr confessed.  He served a couple of years in an Elmira prison, then worked for UPI for 47 years, though he was apparently also an alcoholic and an abusive father.

Caleb Carr comes off as a novelist of historical fiction who also dabbles in historical articles and books (and, it turns out, screenplays of two Exorcist prequels), but it turns out to be the opposite.  He's a well-respected historian.  Caleb has an injury to his arm and shoulder, similar to his alienist character, and he lives in a beautiful, self-made home with a wrap-around porch, in the mountains--alienated from his society, and recovering, as Carr admits, from being alien to himself.

Art imitates life.