Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: Quarry in the Middle

There is cool and there is awesome. Don Draper is cool; Clint Eastwood is awesome. Frank Sinatra is cool; Sean Connery is awesome. Do you understand now? Good. Max Allan Collins’ “Quarry” is very awesome. The character has been around since the 70s in one capacity or another, but recently Hard Case Crime, one of the coolest publishers ever, has been printing original novels featuring the notorious hitman. After 2006’s The First Quarry and 2008’s The Last Quarry, it is only right to now have Quarry in the Middle. As you can imagine this takes place in the middle of the Quarry timeline.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, Quarry is the alias of a very smart assassin. At this point, he is no longer working for The Broker and wants revenge. So he finds further hitmen, discovers who their targets are and offers the target his services to kill their hitman. Like I said, he’s awesome. There are plenty of worthy hitman series to read like the wonderful John Rain series by Barry Eisler. What makes this one so special? It’s because of Quarry, himself. The first person narrative is witty and fun. The plotting is fast pace and exciting, as is custom with Collins. I hope I am not spoiled by these recent additions to the series and have to wait a few decades for another adventure.

Book Review: The Rattlesnake Season

I admit it. I’m not too familiar with westerns. Aside from a few choice Elmore Leonards, I really haven’t read any. I’m sorry! I’m willing to become more educated after reading the fine novel The Rattlesnake Season by Larry D. Sweazy. This is the type of book that further proves that genre literature ought to be respected more. Just like “literary” fiction, the best genre fiction tends to have its focus on its characters. Season is no exception as it introduces Josiah Wolfe, a resurrected Texas Ranger in the 1870s.

In its haunting prologue, Wolfe loses his wife during the birth of his son. Years pass and the son is older. In order to provide for his smaller family, he rejoins the Rangers. His first assignment is to bring the criminal Charlie Langdon back to Austin (That’s my name!) to be hung. The task is anything but simple and that is one of the reasons this is such a compelling read. There’s a real sense of place and time that never feels over-explained, which tends to happen in lesser historical novels. It’s a very strong debut and I can’t wait to see more in the series.

Ticket Stubs: Bright Star

While watching the wonderful Bright Star, I discovered I relate more to 19th century poets than the coffeeshop generation of writers of today. I have no intention of trading my MacBook for an ink pen or wearing outfits that would be perceived as “stylish.” It was all about the way John Keats and Mr. Brown saw their roles as poets. Practicality be damned there was no other profession that they could be. They comprehend that there is very little money coming their way, but it is as if they accept their destiny for better or worse. This to me is truly honorable and speaks more of being a writer than any other film in quite some time.

Now we all recognize the name of John Keats or at least we should... Philistines. Keats is considered one of the great romantic poets. Just like the celebrities of today, I was not familiar with Keats’s personal life. To me, Fanny Brawne sounded vaguely like an answer to a Jeopardy question. That may also be true, but she is more known as the muse for Keats. Bright Star tells the tale of their pure romance.

It is difficult to properly classify this movie. It is a biopic but it isn’t just like it’s a period piece but isn’t. Pardon my contradiction, but this movie felt like a wonderful breath of fresh air. This movie reminded us that a genre movie does not have to fall into the same tired beats. The film begins immediately into the story, never talking down to the audience to explain the time and the characters. As much as the trailer wishes you to believe, this doesn’t fall into the typical period piece clich├ęs where it is about character fighting against class systems. There are those elements and they are an obstacle, but no one is monologuing about them. The characters understand their situation so there is no need to whine endlessly about it.

This is what I really love about this movie. The whole piece just feels so delicate. There is not a wasted word or scene on screen. Like the poems of Keats, everything feels so wonderfully actualized. This is the work of a skilled artist. Jane Campion is a director I’ve always admired, but never anticipated her new entries. Bright Star changed that. It wasn’t just her screenplay, but the way every frame felt organic and realized. Also there is a real sense that she is an actor’s director. She is working with accomplished characters actors like Ben Wishaw (Perfume) and they all are able to capture nuances needed for the characters. Especially Paul Schneider. Good golly Miss Molly; why aren’t more people giving him the proper credit as one of the best actors working right now? He’s remarkable in this just like he was in All the Real Girls, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, and Lars and the Real Girl. Eventually he’ll receive an Oscar nomination. He deserves it for his role as Mr. Brown, Keats’s best friend and lesser poet. I always thought that talking about potential Oscar bids was the best way to date a review, but in this case I’m just hoping for that.

Ultimately, Bright Star is as intelligent and sweet as the subjects themselves. This movie is not limited towards the female gender. In fact John Keats proves that real men know romance. It’s not shameful to take notes. At least I hope not.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ticket Stubs: The Box

If I write this review, two things will happen. One: someone somewhere in the world who I probably know will roll their eyes at this introduction. Two: I will receive one million dollars courtesy of Now this could all be a bluff, an empty box if you will. Nothing may happen, but there’s still that thought in the back of your head that it could. It seems like a short puzzle, but curiosity will still remain after a decision is made. Is this really the end of the line? What poor souls have to have to be the ones to roll their eyes? Who is making this offer? Surely not MovieSet; I’m sure they doubt my employment with every review I turn in.

For the one of you who is confused, I’m talking about Richard Kelly’s latest mind-melter, The Box. In this film, the stakes are slightly raised with having a random person die instead of having to endure the uncomfortableness of suffering through a mediocre joke. However, the questions remain the same. The moral puzzle can only last so long, but Kelly creates a fun atmosphere by using those remaining questions to create this crazy-awesome sci-fi tale. Viewers of Donnie Darko know that Kelly is not interested in conventional tales. They also know he’s into water movement and this movie has both of those quirks.

In the same vein as a show like LOST, The Box toys with its supernatural quandaries in an addicting fashion. Not all of the solutions are extremely satisfying, but the film surprised me how often it made me reexamine the ethics of the initial premise. It’s not often you see such an interesting examination of altruism in today’s society, even if the film is set in the 1970s. Especially an examination that involves…nope, I’m not going to spoil it.

The film is not perfect, but if you embrace the madness of the plot it’s worth your time. Everyone involves seems to be entirely with it. James Marsden, Cameron Diaz, and Frank Langella all admirably ground the movie with their believable performances of the characters’ struggles. Yes even Diaz, who I sincerely believe can not read, delivers a performance that is not distracting and—dare I say!—competent. Not since Being John Malkovich have I been able to look at her and say “That wasn’t bad.” So clearly she needs to stick with movies where she cannot comprehend the plot.

Proper writing structure suggests that I return to the gimmick in the first paragraph as a bookend, but that premise was questioning whether or not I write a review. I wrote it. Clearly, this is the final paragraph. So instead of professionally concluding a review, I’ll just provide this link to a brilliant parody of The Box. Enjoy:

Friday, November 6, 2009

Ticket Stubs: Antichrist

In all regards, you should not watch Antichrist. My position as a reviewer is to guide you into seeing or not seeing a film by providing my own opinions. Throughout this review, I shall remark a lot of the achievements of this film, but I warn you this is not a recommendation.

So why shouldn’t you see a film that I will label as technically good? When you look as Lars Von Trier’s canon, there are a variety of films designed to make you feel uneasy. His greatest films in my mind (Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves) are films that I have no interest in experiencing for a second time. Von Trier has the uncanny ability to delve in to the dark parts of the human psyche and create remarkable works of art from it. With those films, the audience also takes part in his characters’ downward spirals but it is appreciated because these characters are worth caring about and he is a very competent director. Now with Antichrist, he may have crossed the line into pure misery.

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play a nameless couple whose child is killed in the opening scene of the film. What follows is a demented journey of grief and pain, which is more frightening than insightful. Their destruction plays like a feature version of Un Chien Andalou equipped with images that are forever scared in my brain. Dafoe and Gainsbourg act through this expertly with unflinching and raw decisions. In fact everything about this film is done expertly. Von Trier experiments and succeeds with his lighting techniques that I’ve never seen done before. The film is shot like a work of art, but more in the vein of Hieronymus Bosch than Monet. (Yes I only know who Bosch is because I read Michael Connelly. Don’t judge me.)

Why I don’t rank Antichrist as highly as the rest of Von Trier’s work? For the art overpowers the characters and the story. Everything felt like a device to put the audience on the same level von Trier is on. I embrace film because of its unique way to tell a story. When storytelling is compromised I tend to lose respect for the filmmaker, which is what has happened to me towards Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, and David Lynch. (Eat it up film nerds!). The reason people seem to be attracted towards Antichrist is its use of compromise. Much in the same vein as Salo, people comment on seeing this film as an achievement in tolerance. They made it through and were able to blog about it. However this does not compare as effective as Requiem For a Dream or even Cries and Whispers because for me the experience of Antichrist isn’t worth it.

Ticket Stubs: A Serious Man

As we wrap Halloween Movie Month at, I decided to check out a scary movie. No I didn’t go out and see Saw VI, Cirque de Freak or the horrifying looking Couples Retreat. I decided to check out the latest Coen Brothers’ creation: A Serious Man. Now I’m sure all of you’re are screaming at your computer screens in protest demanding that I rightfully categorize it as a drama or even a drama-edy not a horror film. Now let’s just look at what constitutes a horror movie.

To me the effective horror movies are ones where bad things are happening to relatively good people. What’s creepier than a seemingly unstoppable larger-than-life force that is out to get you? In the case of A Serious Man, that force is God or just terrible luck. Much like the biblical Job, Larry Gopnik is having everything that could go wrong occur in a very short amount of time. On every front he is hit: from a marital, financial, professional and religious standpoint. This predicament is scarier than any Michael Myers or Vince Vaughn for this is something completely intangible.

Throughout all of this, Larry keeps insisting to anyone who would listen that he hasn’t done anything wrong. Yet he hasn’t really done anything great as well. Is doing nothing wrong, something wrong? This is one of many paradoxes examined in the film. No easy solutions are given no matter how desperately the characters want them. Larry and his family are devout members of the Jewish community during the 1960s so everyone around him keeps telling him to turn to the rabbis for advice. However all he receives are empty parables and a prescription to continue to have faith in God.

From that description, I seem to be accidently inferring that the Coens are saying that religion is unsatisfying. I do not believe that for the simple reason of I don’t know yet. This is my first review for this site where I am not 100% certain on my interpretations of the directors’ intentions. I apologize for having only seen this film once. This is not an act of mental laziness on my part because so much of the film is up to interpretation. Interpretations that I feel will change as time goes by for me, much like theories about real life.

Do not take my indecisions as a strike against the film (or hopefully not me). A Serious Man is a film I call “intellectually arousing.” I never want a film to be disposable. You can determine a film’s impact by how long you think about it afterwards. This is a film that academically satisfies its viewers, but on a surface level it is flawlessly entertaining. This is the genius of the Coen Brothers. Thanks the Roger Deakins the shots are always astounding and the actors, especially Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry, know how to sell the comedy and tragedy of the situation. This is exactly the kind of film I latch onto and adore. So check it out as, at the very least, an unconventional Halloween viewing.