Sunday, July 23, 2017

Oh. My. God. Castlevania!!

Rarely have I seen a more fulfilling adaptation of a thing I have loved so much for so long. Netlix's new anime of the Castlevania  series was a fantastic four episodes. My only complaint is that the first season was short. So short, in fact, that you barely get to see the inside of Dracula's castle, which is a huge deal. But that really is the only bad thing I can think to say, that I wanted more, and wished Netflix had had the guts to test the waters with a full season. They learned pretty quick though, and renewed the show almost immediately. Smart.

Here's my take on the highlights of Castlevania:

Dracula: Maybe this should go without saying, but still. They made him sympathetic, providing the burning of his wife as the motivation for the curse he lays upon Targoviste. At the same time, he is every bit as bad-ass as the punishingly difficult final boss that every player expects from Castlevania. My personal favorite was the pillar of fire.



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Additionally, I liked that, in lieu of Dracula being irreparably, inexcusably evil, we have a very sinister view of the religious authority in the town, the one responsible for burning Mrs. Dracula. When he gets his comeuppance, it's both well-deserved and well-scripted. *MWAH!*

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"I'm Trevor fucking Belmont."

The humor
: Despite the awesomely despicable gore (loved that whipped-out eyeball), there was a thread of grim humor throughout, which really added something to the dialogue, and the overall feel of the show. The material is definitely being taken seriously, but the dark humor feels authentic and genuine to the kind of apocalyptic scenario that Trevor Belmont and the people of Targoviste have thrust upon them.

The catacombs: Though we only got to see a small portion of Dracula's castle, the setup for it was really well executed. A small visual moment lets you know exactly when it's happened (the light bulbs indicative of Dracula's technology). But it was presented as a subterranean sector of the town itself, which in reality was a demonstration of just how far Dracula's reach over the town extends. Clever.

Can't wait for more. Gimme more. I need more!

K Rating: 5/5

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Straight-up Creepy: The Resident

I never hesitate to watch anything produced by Hammer Studios. The Resident (2011) was no different, and my interest was piqued by the presence of Jeffrey Dean Morgan (TWD's Negan) and the Hammer idol Christopher Lee himself.

The Resident is about a recently separated doctor (Hillary Swank, my least favorite person) who moves into a new apartment, and is never quite alone there. Creepiness ensues, and interest turns into obsession, turns into violent mania. That's about all I can say without giving away more.

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The film was fine, but it certainly wasn't Hammer's finest. The depravity of the voyeurism and the brutality accompanied by it were spot on, and the production values were spot on (especial kudos go out to the lighting department), but the plot was so straightforward it was disappointing. I really hoped for more psychological bends and twists, and wished the identity of the perpetrator had been kept from me. At least a little misdirection was wanted, and with it this film would have earned its place.

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The man needed more to do...how do you
underuse a talent like his????
There were plenty of choices as to who could be harassing the unsuspecting doctor-the new landlord, (we all know Negan is very capable of being a creepy mother-fucker), his old grandfather (he's been the scariest man/monster who's ever lived), or the philandering boyfriend who she stupidly lets back into her life. But I wasn't left guessing, not even for a little bit, about who the villain of the film was. And that really took away from it, for no discernible reason. They even pulled a weird directorial stunt of rewinding scenes not even of a quarter of the way through the movie to hit me over the head with the resolution of what I thought was the plot. Then everything was laid bare, and there was nothing left for me to do but sit back and watch the grossness unfurl. I would have much preferred being kept in the dark, finding out along with the dear doctor just what the hell is wrong with her apartment, and why she can't seem to wake up in the morning.

K Rating: 6/10

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Mixed Signals: Standard Gothic Meets Paranoiac in The Widow's House

In my quest for new authors, it seems more common than not that the writers, and their stories, have great potential, but lack something in execution. The same is true of my recent read, The Widow's House. The back cover touted a terrifying gothic story set in the perpetually haunted Hudson Valley.

The "gothic" segments of the book were the hardest to swallow. For one, the protagonist Clare doesn't take her haunted situation very seriously. She states rather plainly what she saw, dismissing those supernatural instances out of hand before there's time to create any kind of atmosphere, mood, or sense of terror within the character. Automatically then, I can't be made to care much about these things either.

Second, the characters of the book (all old-school traditional (read really pretentious) writers seem to be bashing the very genre their author is writing in. That certainly didn't endear me to the book or its characters, but aside from that, it was contradictory to the plot. If Clare's husband, Jess, the "famous" (actually one moderate book ten years ago) writer balks at dilapidated houses and the stories bred by them, why is he so eager to move in to one, claiming inspiration? The only one writing a decent story in that house is Clare, based on a local Apple Blossom Queen. That was an interesting quirk, but unraveling the who's who of the story was convoluted, and not in an "AHA!" kind of way.

The plot didn't build in tension, mainly because every possible chance at a real gothic story was brushed aside, and was largely tropish. The concepts were good, but tropish. And I didn't really care about the growing distance between Clare and Jess. It wasn't exciting, or unpredictable, and again, it didn't endear me to Clare, who puts up with someone painted as lazy, self-centered, abusive, and potentially philanderous.

The last quarter of the book is the best part, but mainly because it is almost an entire shift in the book itself. Not just in the plot, but also in the kind of book you're reading. We went from a semi-haunted I don't-care-about-this story to a psychological thriller, which was exciting for the last few pages, but wasn't fully developed. The breadcrumbs that should have been there throughout really weren't. When Clare starts to question her reality, or when you start to question her reliability as a narrator, that is the author's best accomplishment in this book. But again, to see that kind of consistency in tension and telling throughout the book, rather than a sleepy novel that had a great ending, would have been immensely preferable.

This is what comes of dabbling: trying to write in a genre that you only half-heartedly, at best, seem to respect or even understand. When you look down your nose at the thing you're hoping to draw readers with, the result is usually half-assed. It's a mathematical certainty. GARBAGE IN= GARBAGE OUT.

I've said this many times before, but it is usually true. If you think this story is for you, watch Paranoiac instead. Or  Strait-Jacket.

K Rating: 5/10
**New Author Goal: 13 out of 30**


Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Lesson in Character: A Darker Shade of Magic

Four Londons: all distinct, with some parallels, bound by magic. One closed off from the others, whose horrors begin to creep back into the rest.

It's a great premise, which is of course why I picked up A Darker Shade of Magic. The plot itself: the invasion of hungry, murderous, black magic into the remaining realms: one on the brink of destruction, one prosperous, and our plain ol' regular London, felt fresh and new. The concept of how the worlds interacted with each other (which is to say very little), the description of different magical systems, (especially Black London's magic), all that was very good. But overall, the book was only "meh." For one glaring reason: the characterization sucked.

The two main characters, Kell and Delilah, are painfully shallow and contradictory. Kell is one of two remaining blood magicians, capable of traveling between worlds. For someone who wields unspeakable power, over blood and the elements, Kell is constantly on the run in this book. He was weak at every turn, waiting to be rescued by the female, presumably just for the sake of having the stronger character be female. Which in this universe, made not a lick of sense, since she's been living in Grey London (our London, where magic is forgotten). You wanna have her discover some powers she couldn't possibly have? Fine by me, but her snarkiness rubbed me entirely the wrong way. She came off as pig-headed rather than brave, which I didn't appreciate. Her biggest contradiction is that she thinks of herself as a pirate. She seems to have no seafaring background whatsoever, and of course no realistic conception of pirate as privateer - something the author would do well to demonstrate she understands. Additionally, her desire to do that, in addition to cross-dressing, and the use of a top hat are anachronistic. Tri-cornered hat is more like it, if she dreams of being a pirate.

It peeved me, these little details about how the worlds are built-essentially, that there wasn't a great attention paid to details. The concept of how the worlds interact is not enough-each one of those worlds felt empty, and I had to do a lot of the work in terms of imagining the places where the characters traveled, filling in gaps that the text didn't provide. And the secondary characters are worse-off than the mains: they get so little page-time, that they're barely established, let alone made complex and capable of growth. Which is a problem, because those are the people whom the mains care about. But I can't empathize with them about stock figures.

Then again, I'd like to see something substantial happen in this universe: not just plotwise, because that this book semi-accomplished, if in a somewhat rushed way, but the first book in this series left off suggesting that their escapades would be episodic, rather than part of a larger arc of depth and growth. Which is frustrating. I want to like this series. If I can just get some characters I can care about, I'll be fine.

K Rating: 5/10


**New Author Goal: 12 out of 30**

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Shallow Horror -The Neon Demon

Beauty queens can be bitches. The beauty industry, likewise, is a dog-eat-dog world, with fierce competition between models, photographers, makeup artists, etc. That is the setting of The Neon Demon (2016), which follows the new "it" girl around L.A. for a few days, before things get ugly.



Overall I enjoyed this film, and appreciated the special attention paid to artistic shots, but it wasn't robust enough for me to merit it being a feature-length film. Not with the plot as thin as it was. This would have felt much sharper had it been shortened as part of an anthology, or simply just a short film, but the violence that is blended with the artistry of this film was only strong in certain places, leaving a lot of empty space in between scenes that could have carried a more complex plot, rather than the very expected jealousy that brews among girls who have been in the business longer than the angelic-looking newcomer, whose face and demeanor catch the eye of designers and photographers as being "true" beauty, rather than the manufactured faces and bodies of the competition.

Image result for blood and black laceWhen the competing girls try to capture the new girl's look (literally), things get interesting, and the violence is smartly done, but it just doesn't go far enough. By the time those scenes of violence begin to escalate, the movie is over. And the nature of the violence itself (I don't want to give it away) is something I have seen before, so as nice as the shots were, more originality would have paid off there. It's a matter of the writing, not the storytelling, if you catch my drift. And with subject matter like this, it's all too easy for me to compare it to Blood and Black Lace (1964). In other words, there's a very hard act to follow.

The director Nicolas Winding Refn has gotten my attention, but I want to see this kind of talent being put to real solid use. Firmer, more intricate writing on par with the photography would have made this stellar.

K Rating: 7/10

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Not Quite as Good as the First: The Wise Man's Fear

The Name of the Wind was one of the best books I read last year, and I was eager to continue Kvothe's story in the second installment of the Kingkiller Chronicle, The Wise Man's Fear.

This hefty volume picks up where the first book left off, with Kvothe studying to be an Arcanist while continually trading barbs with the wealthy, pig-headed Ambrose, struggling to keep his financial head above water, searching out his lady love, and, oh yes, searching for any clue at all to the legendary Chandrian who butchered his entire troupe for singing the wrong kinds of songs.

The lyrical, enticing language that drew me into the first book was still just as strong here, and certain parts of the story developed in ways that excited me: learning more about the Chandrian, for example, and laying the ground for hopefully more on that front in the next volume. I also never tire of the threads of the story dealing with the Edema Ruh, the troupe culture into which Kvothe was born. But I was disappointed by a number a small issues I took with the book, issues that accumulated as I continued to read. This book felt more repetitive than the first. Sometimes in the actual plot, where the day to day detail was so excruciating that it became redundant rather than enriching. I think specifically of the back and forth travels to Imre searching for the love interest Denna. Kvothe did the same thing hundreds of times in The Name of the Wind, and hundreds of times here. It got stale very quickly. So did the continual finding and loss/destruction of his beloved lute, and the perpetual problem of paying his tuition with a loanshark and having to pay her back. A book that was 1000+ pages didn't need that-it didn't make the story feel grander or more epic: if anything, it detracted, and gave it an underlying sense of the humdrum.

When Kvothe temporarily leaves the Arcanum to seek potential patronage in Vintas, the story splinters further, and while each individual sector may have been interesting, it did damage to the overall cohesion of Kvothe's narrative. While I fully understand that the hero's journey has multiple stops along the way, the presentation of those threads here were rarely satisfying. There was no appreciable development of Kvothe's character as a result of them, which bothered me the most. You're supposed to get stronger, smarter, better equipped, or what have you, to face the challenge at the end of the road: not continually be referred to (by yourself and others) as a clever fool. While in the Vintas court, it felt like we stepped into Game of Thrones for a bit, just for the sake of it. Then we veered off into a traveling mercenary band and then fairy land, where the siren Felurian showed Kvothe some interesting things-things that might develop further in book three, and might cast the whole series in a more tragic light. Then some darker moments involving an encounter with the Chandrian, which I absolutely did appreciate, because it moved Kvothe forward. This was perhaps the only thing in the book that accomplished that, which is sad.

Blue fairy print, Blue fairy artwork, beautiful fairy painting, magical fae, magic jar, fairy wings, fairy decor, fantasy art, blue artwork
Felurian, apparently, has turned Kvothe into a philanderer, both in Ademre and back at the Arcanum when the time comes. Not with Denna of course: the contradictions actually undermine the entirety of the tension between the two of them, rather than add to it. Ademre, another new locale for this book, had the opportunity to interest me more, because of more intel on the Chandrian held within the community, but that was not the focus. Here Rothfuss tried hard to show a foreign culture, and while I can see very easily that a great deal of thought went into the details of civilization, i.e. expression through hand gestures rather than facial changes, other parts like their open sexuality made no goddamned sense. That is the cultural historian in me talking, so maybe others would not complain, but I saw the contradictions in the Adem's claims to higher civilizations through control of the face. Given that context, the complete lack of control around sexuality and childbirth was incongruous. Controlling reproduction (through marriage) is one of the first markers of civilization across space and time. Just ask Foucault.

All in all, it didn't shake my desire to see the series to its conclusion, but I go to the third book (when it comes) a little warier, a little less excited than I was. And that's what's really sad.

K Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

In Defense of Lovecraft: Lovecraft Country

I made room for Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country on my shelf because, hey, it's Lovecraft! Ancient gods, mystery cults, cosmic horrors piercing the veil of sanity...what's not to like?

Here's what I don't like, and take extreme umbrage with. There has been a growing trend to look at Lovecraft-not his fiction, not his impact on genre literature-but at Mr. Howard Phillips himself, and say: this man was a racist, and his fiction, his legacy, requires correction.

What's the purpose of conjuring up nightmarish elder things when there are real monsters lurking in America? That's what Ruff would have us think-that since there were (and still are) real dangers in our society, wrought upon us every day by the racial divide sown into the very fabric of this country's creation, that there is no place for imaginative horrors and fantasies. Not by racists like Lovecraft, that is.

Through his character's mouths, Ruff says as much in one of the episodes in Lovecraft Country. The man's a racist, so his work shouldn't be read, shouldn't be praised. That sickens me to my core, and I'll tell you why.

1. In the twentieth century, for the entirety of the twentieth century but perhaps moreso in the 1920's during which Lovecraft was most active, everybody and their mothers were racists. Not only in America but especially in America: with a long history of slavery, then segregation mixed with terrorism, scientific racism, and an American eugenics movement (YES-the thing that brought Nazi Germany to the Final Solution), racism has always been and continues to be the order of the day. That doesn't make it okay, that doesn't normalize it, but it does contextualize it. Lovecraft, while sometimes vocal about his racial inclinations, was no better or worse than most of his New England neighbors. You only know that about him with more certainty because he was a writer. To define him by this is a nonstarter; it's not news, and it's not a definitive piece of his identity as a writer. To say that, based on his ideas about blacks and other ethnic minorities, his literature is not worth reading, is assinine. That kind of thinking would wipe from the earth practically everything penned by a white person until possibly the end of the twentieth century, when thinking about race in terms of cultural relativity even emerged as a school of thought.

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Not even close, Ruff. Not even close
2. Matt Ruff couldn't shine Lovecraft's shoes. I read for about 75-100 pages, then I had to stop. For a book that touted itself as the answer to Lovecraft's whitewashed universe, the book was empty. The characters were flat, their universe was bland, and there was no mood whatsoever to be had in any of the short little tales that are only connected by the thinnest of threads. There was a seriously missed opportunity to inject African-American culture into this work in a real way. I'm thinking specifically of the "Which House," where the female character speaks to the ghost haunting the house, very calmly, in a defiant, stereotypically "uppity" manner. Why not deal with spirituality in black communities, Ruff? WHY THE HELL NOT???

But no. Everything was told in such a perfunctory, matter-of-fact way, that I could never connect to the characters, never feel the impact of their stories. First they got shaken down by the side of the road. After that, the protagonist's father is found in the basement of an arcane society that wants his blood. They escaped, then tried to find a diner that would service them.....

And it goes on and on like that. There's no emotion for any of the scenes, no matter the nature of the danger being faced. Both the perils of the Deep South and the unspeakable terrors of the Mythos can send shivers down one's spine. This book does neither.

3. It isn't the next Beloved. I'm a cultural historian by training. I've spent many years up to my eyeballs in the ideologies that have shaped this country into the divisive, hateful, self-important, deluded, bloodsucking thing that it (mostly but not always) is. So trust me when I say I know with a deep sincerity the scars of racial injustice in America, as much as someone can without it having been my own experience. On the literary side of things, I've read a tremendous amount of tremendous African-American literature. This is not that. This is a haphazard cobbling together of borrowed ideas watered down with nothing new or provocative added to the mix. What's written in these pages is in no way a contribution to a robust, meaningful, compelling literary history.

It's not what I expected: I expected a story that came at Lovecraft from a positive place, something that could add layers of racial dimensions that Lovecraft would not, indeed could not have thought of himself. Something to enrich the mythos, to enhance it. But it's not a bright and shining example of African-American literature. And it isn't genre fiction, by any stretch of the imagination. Which leaves us with nothing-just an empty shell of a book with Lovecraft's name on the cover.

That name, by the way, the one you would have us forget in favor of your own? That name on your cover is the only reason anyone took a second look at this book. And you would spit in his eye? Shame on you.

**New Author Goal: 11 out of 30**