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.

Quickie Review: PATERSON (2016)

PATERSON strikes me as AMERICAN SPLENDOR (the comic, not the film) for the beautiful people. The ones with artistic tendencies, who are old enough to accept the reality of a workday job but too young to be completely jaded about it yet. Adam Driver is no Harvey Pekar. Driver, a bus driver, goes about his daily routine, observing and absorbing life along his route — the characters, the conversations, the situations (like, being a driver named Paterson, driving through Paterson) — living a poetic life in every sense of the word.

(Spoilers near the end of the post.)

This film’s strength as a piece of art is that you’re able to project a little bit onto it. Some reviewers see this as a piece about a man moving through his poetic life, poetically, with a Zen-like focus on the infinite variety of subjects he encounters in his daily route. His passengers, fellow bar patrons, his artistic (if unfocused) wife and her dog are stops along his way which he soaks up and documents in his poems. And when Paterson’s life is disrupted in the one way it could be, he eventually comes to treat it as the momentary aberration it is, and his poetic equilibrium is restored.

I see something different, though. I see an writer who never publishes, chafing a little against his good-enough routine but with little reason to change anything. And when he pays the price for this life, which then offers him an opening to make a change, here comes the poetic Universe in the form of a magical Japanese man to usher him back. And Paterson does go back, willingly, into that prison and closes the door behind him.

SPOILER here, but I think it’s worth mentioning how this film was a lesson in establishing plot threads that aren’t wrapped up, but which totally works because those things aren’t what the film is about anyway. I was expecting a dog-napping, a smashed guitar, ruined cupcakes, a divorce, or a newly discovered twin. We get none of that, but it’s okay. Depending on your point of view, this is either a film about choosing to live a pure, artistic life for its own sake or it’s about condemning yourself to an existential hell that was ultimately of your own making.

Either way is poetic to me.

Quickie Review: THE DEAD MOUNTAINEER’S INN

The Dead Mountaineer's Inn: One More Last Rite for the Detective GenreThe Dead Mountaineer’s Inn: One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre by Arkady Strugatsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I got this book as a gift and I was happy to get it; my reading of Soviet era science fiction has been nonexistent. This book is now my new standard for judging the “genre mashups” I read from now on. The book really is everything that Jeff VanderMeer promises it is in his introduction. It’s all here: shades of mystery, hints of the occult, and a bit of science fiction (some of which brought R.A. Lafferty to mind). A little surrealism and magical realism too, but with a twist. I loved how the Brothers Strugatsky almost always had a rational narrative explanation… which the reader is free to accept or reject.

There’s so much delicious meta in the book, too. In one scene, the main character breaks into a fellow guest’s room thinking, “I did this just like a hero in a spy thriller would have — I didn’t know how else to do it.” Meta is the book’s mission statement, in a way. It’s theme is how “The unknown makes us think — it makes our blood run a little quicker and gives rise to various delightful trains of thought. It beckons, it promises. It’s like a fire flickering in the depths of the night.” And, it’s a warning that, “You’re following the most natural roads, and for that reason you’ve ended up in unnatural places.” It’s elements like these, and the timelessness of the story’s setting that allows this 1970 novel to age well.

View all my reviews

Quickie Review: ARRIVAL (2016)

I first heard of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” on which ARRIVAL is based, at the very first con I attended as a wannabe writer about seven or eight years ago. It was on a panel that included among other luminaries, Nancy Kress, who cited “Story of Your Life” as the best short story dealing with the idea of translating of alien languages. I read it soon thereafter, a couple of times over. It’s been about 3-4 years since I read it last.

It’s a Ted Chiang story (everyone in the SF/F writing business knows what that means), so it left enough of an impression on me that when I saw ARRIVAL, I knew that whatever liberties this film adaptation took didn’t take away from the fundamental truth of the story. Sure, a film with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker would have to kick things up a notch to justify their salaries. But I’m extremely tickled by how this story about translation was in fact a very good translation. Nothing was lost. And just maybe one or two things were gained.