Quickie Review: SWORD OF TRUST (2019)

B for effort, B- for execution. It met my barest expectations, namely watching Marc Maron play a version of himself as he did on his IFC show and on GLOW. And while the Maron snark shown in the trailer might’ve been my primary draw, SWORD OF TRUST teases me with the unspoken parts of his character Mel’s story. Of course, his story wasn’t the film’s story.

Writers Lynn Shelton (also the director) and Mike O’Brien compensate for what was lacking in Mel’s story by fleshing out almost every other character. Not completely, but enough for the story’s purposes. And I think the improvisational aspect of the film elevated the them above what could’ve been an utter trainwreck of southern stereotypes. SWORD OF TRUST’s biggest positive, I think, is how it (thankfully) baited and switched on anyone looking for a lazy, self-congratulatory endorsement of those stereotypes. Don’t bother seeing it if you’re expecting to just laugh at “dumb Southerners.”

Quickie Review // DEAR AMERICA: NOTES OF AN UNDOCUMENTED CITIZEN by Jose Antonio Vargas

It’s interesting–and perhaps a little narcissistic?–to think I see parts of my story, and the stories of other Filipino immigrants and children of immigrants I know, even the ones who didn’t go through what Vargas is experiencing now. The themes Vargas uses to categorize his experiences living, in his words, as an undocumented citizen in the U.S. are: Lying, Passing, and Hiding. I look at some of my family’s and others’ stories of adapting to life in these United States (not only the ones who were tago ng tago, but them too), and see those there elements in them, as well.

Surely this was unintentional, but Vargas’s book caused me to wonder if there are rites of passages that Filipino immigrants and/or their children must go through. Or rather, are fated to go through. Odd looks for bringing a lunch to school that wasn’t PB&J? Fucking up the rules of an American sport on the first go-round? Confusion about how everything is “Black and White,” when you saw how some Filipinos and other Brown folks talked stuff about both?

Other parts of Vargas’s story that I can’t relate to directly still had some resonance with my life, but the ones that didn’t had value as well. Vargas offers some education to anyone not familiar with immigration issues. The book certainly filled some gaps in my own knowledge. Vargas spells out why undocumented immigrants can’t “just get legal,” and has numbers on how much undocumented immigrants give, rather than take, economically. He illustrates how the Black struggle, and Black literature especially, informed his own thinking on the dynamics of White power and privilege that affected his life. And he draws a pretty straight line about how Asians benefited from a foundation in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, through the 1965 Voting Rights Act and up to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. That knowledge, that history alone is worth the cover price.

Quickie Review: THE ENDLESS (2017)

I knew nothing about this film when it was recommended to me with the explicit instruction not to Google anything about it beforehand. Not even information about the directors/stars Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Okay, fine.

Within the first five minutes of it, I knew this was something right up my alley, even when I saw some shots that seemed to have that stereotypical “first year film student” vibe. It was a mistake to think that. It had all the earmarks of exactly the kind of stories I’ve been striving to write.

I’m reluctant to write much more for fear of spoiling it. There’s very little extraneous information about THE ENDLESS that couldn’t give something away to the literate speculative fiction film-goer once they were actually watching it. Okay, at the risk of doing that, I’ll say this is hands down the best film of a certain particular pulp sci-fi/horror genre I’ve ever seen, with some fresh ideas thrown in. And if you want to know why (god dammit, I’m really biting my tongue here), you’ll just have to see it.

Quickie Review: LEAVE NO TRACE (2018)

This is a film I could write two reviews for, depending on my point of view:

One would talk about how the film shows not a single person of color. I feel like it bothered me less than it should have. Maybe because the film’s focus was, for all its Whiteness and White privilege, on a segment of people that are truly marginalized. But even when you look at the father’s problems, you can look at his circumstances and it’s obvious how much worse they would be if he was a person of color. He probably wouldn’t have lived past the first act.

The other would try to take the film at face value, and look at is as a story of two people in very vulnerable situations, any of which would go very badly for plot purposes in a Hollywood movie. And ultimately, how it’s a story of when even the closest parent and child must eventually separate. And yet, I still see an art-house film espousing the noblest virtues of White America. Of people–independent, everyday folk making their way in the Pac NW who “don’t want no trouble,” who are wounded warriors themselves, who are just trying to do the right by their community and church–moving out of their comfort zones to help a stranger driven by demons, and his daughter.

I really am of two minds about this movie. And that could be a sign that if someone’s privilege can be problematic, it’s my own.

Quickie Review // THE SKELETON TWINS (2014)

(I wrote this ages ago, left it sitting as a draft, and then apparently forgot all about it until I rediscovered it the other day. So I figured, why not just hit “publish”?)

It’ll sound like a backhanded compliment for me to say this, but it’s not: All THE SKELETON TWINS did was fulfill my high expectations.

Nothing in the plot explicitly waves its arms and telegraphs itself, yet it weaves through and touches all the areas you expect the film to touch on. And the ending is the sort I’ve come to expect from any Duplass Brothers project (cf. my review of THE ONE I LOVE): a small, smoldering fire, quickly resolved because, hey, it has to end somewhere.

To me, the thrill of this film is in the acting. I cannot see anyone else in the roles of Maggie and Milo playing out scenes that can switch on a dime into something heavy, surreal, or crude. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are that talented, so much so that their excellent performances aren’t exactly a shock. Am I that jaded? Maybe. Still, this film still gets high marks all for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is having validated my dedication to not have “peaked in high school.”

Backlog Catch-Up // “Knock” by Fredric Brown

Hi, I’m Don and I have a problem — I can’t stop accumulating short story collections and anthologies. A few, I actually finish. Some I start and never get around to finishing. Others sit gathering dust. So I’ve decided that once a week I’m going to blindly pull a book from my pile, read one story, and talk about it.

This is a day late and I’m cheating a bit this week because this pick isn’t all that random.

From my list of Items From the Nerd Canon I’ve Missed But Dread Admitting Lest I Lose My Nerd Credentials, this classic short story I haven’t gotten around to reading before now, despite having owned FROM THESE ASHES for quite awhile.

This piece is renowned for having one of the shortest stories in sci-fi. You’ve probably seen this reference before…

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…

With the way it’s been presented out of context sometimes, you’d think that was the entire story. What follows after this quote is, for the time in which it was written (1948), a short subversive tale about a scientist avenging the planet Earth in the aftermath of an alien invasion. Subversive because Brown knows all the questions you’ll ask yourself at the start – What does “last man on Earth” mean? Where’s the emphasis, on last or on man? – and he toys with them. Subversive because Brown takes some jabs at some Golden Age of Sci-Fi tropes. This isn’t the story of a stereotypical pulp scientist action hero smashing the aliens with technical ingenuity and  inevitably getting the last woman on earth in the end. It’s about a quiet, homely brainiac who wins with his brainiac knowledge combined with psychological manipulation, and leaves it entirely to the last woman on earth to make the choice to repopulate the planet with him… you know, or not… whatever…

And in that case, maybe it’s not all that subversive at least by today’s standards. But I would still call it an early baby step toward progress.

Quickie Review // IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD (2016)

The film’s animation style is mostly understated, which is appropriate I think. We see the metaphorical cloud hovering over the place. We see the obvious foreshadows, and know how some of the characters’ stories will end, during and after the film. Still, I was compelled to watch as references to Hiroshima slowly built up my unease at the knowledge of a future of which the film’s characters are completely unaware.

The strength of this film is how it clings to the everyday POV of ordinary folks — not Tōjō or his adjutants, not Yamamoto’s admirals, not to anyone monologuing or otherwise giving too much thought to which side is right or wrong. The focus isn’t on the world stage. Just on a girl, her family, her community, and how they cope with life during wartime, with rationing, air raids, and much, much more.

IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD definitely gave me a new sympathy for Japan and what it went through. I know it’s a little counterintuitive, being an American and a Filipino, but it isn’t really. I was born almost thirty years after all of that. And despite everything my parents’ families went through during the occupation of the Philippines, it wasn’t as if I grew up inundated with vitriol against the Japanese. But neither was it ever suggested by anyone that I view the Japan of that period, and everyone in it, in any frame other than Axis vs. Ally, winner vs. loser, us vs. them.

Backlog Catch-Up // “Riya’s Foundling” by Algis Budrys

Hi, I’m Don and I have a problem — I can’t stop accumulating short story collections and anthologies. A few, I actually finish. Some I start and never get around to finishing. Others sit gathering dust. So I’ve decided that once a week I’m going to blindly pull a book from my pile, read one story, and talk about it.

Judith Merril, the editor of this anthology, employs Fredric Brown (one of my personal favorites) to introduce it by posing questions about the qualities which define “human.” Merril divides the stories into three sections. The first section — which contains Budrys’s story — juxtaposes humans against extra-terrestrials.

A lonely little boy with dimension-folding and other powers, transports himself to the dimension of a lonely female with powers of her own and whose nature is pitted against the boy’s desire to return home. And as the reader tries to parse the strange details and qualities of both characters and of each of their worlds, one doesn’t immediately expect to be confronted with such an array of heart-tugging, almost heartbreaking, emotions in such a small space as this story occupies.

Maybe my next reach into my reading backlog shouldn’t be so random — I know I have some more Merril (i.e. her writing), Brown, and Budrys around here somewhere…

Quickie Review // THE NEW YORKER PRESENTS (2016)

Call me pretentious or whatever else. I’m the target audience for this show and I’m proud of it. This may be the first and only time I feel good about binge-watching anything for hours at a time with no guilt whatsoever. I can’t remember when I’ve seen a literary property adapted for any visual medium in a way that retains that property’s essence so completely. The producers have basically bottled and sold THE NEW YORKER in a different package. It does seem — and I’m saying this a little tongue in cheek — like the perfect scam in a way. I mean, when you have a century of material to draw from, you can concentrate on production values and hiring well-known character actors.

It hurts me that at the time I’m posting this, I can’t find any indication of whether or not there will l ever be a season 2. Luckily, as a recent subscriber to the magazine, I’ll be okay for now.

Clips from My Favorite Segments:
A profile of exótico luchador Cassandro
A nurse’s in-home visits with teen moms in Texas
An adaptation of “Last Session” by John Kinney, starring John Turturro and Charles Grodin
Paul Giamatti as Balzac — ’nuff said.
Every single Making of a Cartoon bump.

Backlog Catch-Up // “Free Dirt” by Charles Beaumont

Hi, I’m Don and I have a problem — I can’t stop accumulating short story collections and anthologies. A few, I actually finish. Some I start and never get around to finishing. Others sit gathering dust. So I’ve decided that once a week I’m going to blindly pull a book from my pile, read one story, and talk about it.

“Free Dirt” by Charles Beaumont
From THE HUNGER AND OTHER STORIES (1959, Bantam)

This is the story of one Mr. Aorta — See, already that sounds like the beginning of a Rod Serling TWILIGHT ZONE intro, which is fitting given Beaumont’s relationship to that show as well as the tone of this piece. First published in F&SF in 1957, it’s a cautionary tale of a lazy man’s petty dreams of avarice coming true thanks to some magic dirt. The wonder of Beaumont’s writing is that while you know Mr. Aorta is headed for a not-so-happy ending, Beaumont’s dreams go a step beyond what you expect.