2013年11月26日 星期二

Disgusting, Disturbing, and Just Plain WRONG 2

We are nearing the end of 2013, and even though we still have a month to go, I thought it would be good to look into what most people consider "the best horror films of 2013."  There is a high degree of consensus regarding this list, which could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it.

1. Evil Dead (remake)

I would agree that this is a good film.  It's even more violent than the original, and that scene with the nail gun is classic.  As remakes go, I like it about as much as the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, but not as much as The Hills Have Eyes remake.

I don't think, however, that it's fair to compare this movie with the original.  The first Evil Dead was made with a ridiculously low budget, and the charm of that movie is not that it's scary or violent, but rather that it exhibits a quirkiness and slapstick humor that has become Sam Raimi's trademark.  The remake is simply a horse of a different color, and is more in line with what shocks people in 2013.

2. The Conjuring

This is a more Catholic version of director James Wan's Insidious.  The plot will be familiar to anyone who's seen The Amityville Horror, the Poltergeist movies, or any of the thousand other films that resemble those two franchises.  The acting in this movie is excellent (hey, isn't that the guy from Office Space?), but the derivative nature of the script left me feeling disappointed.

This movie is gore-free, and is instead applauded for its atmosphere.  I will agree that there are a couple of scary scenes in it, but that's not enough to save this movie.  If you want Catholic horror, I would suggest renting, buying, or downloading a copy of The Exorcist.

3. American Mary

I can't figure out why this film is called AMERICAN Mary.  The film was shot in Canada, and it has nothing to do with America.

A medical student enters the world of body modification, offering medical services to those who wish to modify their own anatomy.  It's not as gory as you'd think, and the actress that plays Mary is super hot.  It's not a bad movie, but I wish they'd done more with the material.  The ending is anticlimactic in the extreme.

4. Insidious

This movie was NOT filmed or released in 2013, but the sequel was.  I wasn't able to get my hands on the sequel, but I was able to track down this one.

This movie is pretty much all the ghosts from The Conjuring without the Catholic intervention.  Instead of Catholicism we have astral projection, and demons originating in some realm called "The Further."  It's slightly better than The Conjuring, but still not that great.  I kept waiting for the demon to bust out with a nail gun, or for the dad to pull out a chainsaw, but sadly this never happened.

5. Kill List

This is possibly the best movie discussed here (the Maniac remake was a close second), and its budget was probably less than half of the others.  Two special-ops types are hired to kill several strangers, and their mission gets stranger and stranger as they move up the list.  The twist at the end was easy to see coming, but it's a wonderfully bloody and eerie film. 

6. Whatever the Latest Entry in the Child's Play Series Is

I refuse to see this movie.  The others were stupid enough for me.  I fail to see how the latest entry could be any better.

7. Maniac (remake)

This movie stars Elijah Wood (Frodo!), and is definitely one of the artier horror movies.  Most people probably aren't putting it in their "best of" lists because it was too far outside their expectations.

I thought this was a fantastic movie, and it is the only movie reviewed here that I had to see twice.

Not sure if this one really qualifies as a remake.  It is VERY different from the original film.

8. The Battery

This film was first released in 2012, but it didn't make the festival circuit until this year, and the video release was also in 2013.  It's an extremely low budget zombie film, but it still makes World War Z seem boring and juvenile by comparison.  I'm sure the writer/director of this film will be heard from again.

And a Parting Note...

I guess they've finally finished filming the third Human Centipede movie, this one featuring a 500-person centipede, completed in a prison.  If you have a strong stomach, that would be the one to look for.  As for myself, I think I'd rather watch something less gimmicky.

2013年11月22日 星期五

Best of Summer/Fall 2013

I've been reading A LOT of books.

But after "Collapse," the last book reviewed here, I am now without any books to read.  This will probably be the case until at least Chinese New Year, when I'm sure I'll be in Taipei, Kaohsiung, or some other place where I can buy books.  Until then, consider this the end of my book reviews.

You can click on the titles for a longer review of each book.

10 Best Books

1. "Childhood's End" by Arthur C. Clarke

This is the book that made Clarke famous, and this is also a book that proves his fame is well-deserved.  Not only is it well thought out and meticulously plotted, but the prose is far superior to what you find in most science fiction novels.  Truly a great work by a great writer.

2. "A Century of Science Fiction 1950-1959" edited by Robert Silverberg

There are a few stories in this one that are probably best forgotten, but for each forgettable story there are two excellent works of short fiction.  My favorites in this one were the stories by Philip Jose Farmer and Jack Vance.

3. "The Gates of Creation" by Philip Jose Farmer

Kind of like Conan the Barbarian meets Dune.  This is the second book in Farmer's "World of Tiers" series, and I would love to read the other two books.  Farmer might have written a lot of crap, but this novel is excellent.

4. "Soul Catcher" by Frank Herbert

Perhaps the only "serious" (non-genre) fiction penned by Herbert.  This one takes place in the Pacific Northwest, where an Indian guide kidnaps a young boy.  The ending is a bit disappointing, but this book gets deep.

5. "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Possibly one of the most profound science fiction novels ever written.   Miller Jr.'s novel of post-apocalyptic survival does not make for easy reading, but it is the kind of book that makes an impression.

6. "Venus Plus X" by Theodore Sturgeon

This book is trippy, and I like that.  One of Theodore Sturgeon's two most famous books, this one explores the battle of the sexes from the perspective of an alien race.  Even if you don't agree with the author's historical premise, it's still a great story.

7. "All the Pretty Horses" by Cormac McCarthy

The first book in McCarthy's "Border Trilogy."  This one follows two friends as they explore Mexico on horseback.  The part in the Mexican prison is one of the most harrowing things I've ever read.

8. "Jazz" by Toni Morrison

Even if some of this book does invite unflattering comparisons to Faulkner, Morrison's "Jazz" is very much its own novel, with its own kind of story to tell.  Definitely worth reading.

9. "Peace on Earth" by Stanislaw Lem

Lem at his most slapstick, and Lem at his most paranoid.  An astronaut visits robots on the moon, and returns with a brain severed into two halves.  Certainly one of the strangest and best science fiction novels I've ever read.

10. "Radio Free Albemuth" by Philip K. Dick

A nice companion to Dick's VALIS.  In this book, which can be considered a forerunner of that more famous book, Dick explores the relationship between a record executive, the extraterrestrial intelligence offering him "enlightenment," and a tyrant bent on (inter)national domination. 

Honorable Mention: Frank Herbert's "The Eyes of Heisenberg"

5 Books That Just Weren't Very Good

1. "Lord of Light" by Roger Zelazny

Buddha without the Buddhism.  Science fiction without the science.  Gods war against one another with gizmos, and none of it makes a great deal of sense.

2. "The Heaven Makers" by Frank Herbert

Wow this book was boring.  One of the worst books Herbert ever wrote, and certainly one of the reasons people can't take him seriously outside of "Dune."  The sexual parts were almost interesting, but they couldn't save the book.

3. "Gather, Darkness!" by Fritz Leiber

An order of monks brainwash the populace with a technology they themselves don't understand.  This one might make even less sense than "Lord of Light."

4. "The White Plague" by Frank Herbert

Wow this book is even more boring than "The Heaven Makers" - and also a lot longer.  A plague decimates the women of the world, and leaves the men searching for answers.  It tries to be deep, but fails miserably.

5. "Microworlds" by Stanislaw Lem

Lem comes across as a cranky old man in the non-fiction "Microworlds."  I am sorry that he ever wrote this book, for the simple reason that it will dissuade people from reading his novels - some of which are fantastic.  In this book Lem attempts to put science fiction under a microscope, but the order of magnification is so high that he fails to see anything of substance.

Dishonorable Mention: Marion Zimmer Bradley's "The Planet Savers/Sword of Aldones."

2013年11月21日 星期四

"Collapse" by Jared Diamond (2011)

"I also have to reflect on my own experiences while working in Indonesia from 1979 to 1996 under its military dictatorship.  I loathed and feared that dictatorship because of the things that it did to many of my New Guinea friends, and because of its soldiers almost killing me.  I was therefore surprised to find that that dictatorship set up a comprehensive and effective national park system in Indonesian New Guinea.  I arrived in Indonesian New Guinea after years of experience in the democracy of Papua New Guinea, and I expected to find environmental policies much more advanced under the virtuous democracy than under the evil dictatorship.  Instead, I had to acknowledge that the reverse was true."

The author of this book is perhaps better known for his "Guns, Germs, and Steel," which was published before "Collapse."  "Collapse" first appeared in 2005, but the version I am reviewing includes an afterward written in 2011.  The author is a Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In "Collapse," the author outlines the reasons that past societies have collapsed, and creates a framework for determining how present and future societies might collapse.  At the outset, he is careful to point out that the difference between "collapse" and "decline" is often ambiguous at best, though he might have done better in creating a criteria for where one society ends and another begins.  One might well ask, for example, whether Easter Island's society really did collapse if residents were still there to meet the first European ship.  One might also ask the same question about the Maya, given that there are still people speaking and identifying as Mayan today.  I'm not saying that ancient Mayan society and modern Mayan society are the same thing, but I don't think distinguishing one society from another is as easy as the author claims.

The first half of the book is dedicated to past societies, and symptoms leading up to their collapse, invariably from a combination of environmental factors and something else.  In turn we are led through the collective histories of Easter Island, the Anasazi, the Maya, Norse Greenland, and several South Pacific communities. In all of the examples we see how over-exploitation of their respective environments triggered the collapse of these societies, and how they might have averted their fate.  The author makes a good case for his arguments, but I couldn't help but think he was oversimplifying in the more recent examples, and often overgeneralizing from insufficient data.

In the second half of the book he discusses modern societies, in particular Rwanda, Japan, China, and Australia.  Rwanda's genocide is presented as the consequence of overpopulation, Japan is praised for its forest management, and both China and Australia serve as examples of how modern societies exhaust their natural resources.  In the case of China, I think that his arguments are well thought-out, and I found the chapter on Australia to be the most interesting part of the book.

The book closes with a more general discussion of societal collapse and how it can be avoided.  The author delves into the dynamics of group decision-making, and theorizes on societies that fail to avoid collapse.  This last section is by far the most theoretical, and compared to the rest of the book it feels a bit rushed.

"Collapse" is not a bad book, but it's really, really long and not especially informative.  There are much better books on environmental topics, all of which are much shorter and to the point.  "Collapse" is also, at times, an extremely condescending book.  The author repeats himself often, and at one point he even deigns to explain the meaning of the word "exponentially" for those readers too ignorant to use a dictionary.

I did learn things from this book, but I don't feel that the effort put into reading it equaled the knowledge gained from doing so.  This book gets points for trying, but I felt that it went into too much detail, and that this detail distracts the reader from the author's purpose in writing the book.

2013年11月11日 星期一

"The Kid" by Sapphire (2011)

"'You done broke de' mirror!' Ol' bitch hollering at me.  'You know how old dat mirror is!' I can't get with her voice, like it don't really connect to me but float over me, like it ain't real, maybe none of this shit is real, me laying on glass in the salt-metal smell of my own blood, this old roach room."

"The Kid" is Sapphire's second novel.  It is the sequel to "Push," which was made into the movie "Precious."  I've read parts of "Push," and I've seen the movie, but this is the first of Sapphire's books that I've actually sat down and read from beginning to end.

In "The Kid," Precious' son Abdul Jamal goes through a series of personal upheavals following his mother's AIDS-related death.  He is shipped off to a nightmarish foster home, sent to live in a Catholic boys' school, and spends time with his maternal great-grandmother.  Along the way he struggles with his sexuality, the racism one encounters in New York, and learns about his mother's family.  He also develops a love of dance, and dreams of becoming a celebrated dancer.

The author of this book is very fond of putting things in CAPS and adding exclamation marks to every other sentence!  There is also a lot of fucking profanity in this book!  I SUPPOSE she is trying to communicate the fucking MOOD swings of her PROTAGONIST, but as a literary device it gets FUCKING annoying....!

I also had trouble with Abdul Jamal as a character.  In his inner dialogue he veers from the academic English he learned in Catholic school, to the slang learned in the streets.  His use of this academic English often seems inauthentic, and more like an attempt to make him seem "multidimensional."  

He also displays a kind of vulnerability that is at odds with his environment.  If he really was this sensitive dancer underneath, wouldn't he have to worry about how this identity would be perceived by others?  Wouldn't he worry that they would think he was gay?  The ease with which he throws himself into dance creates a dissonance with other plot elements, and this dissonance could have been alleviated by either making the novel shorter, or by less obvious attempts at creating a dichotomy within his character.

I have other problems with this book.  For one thing, the Catholic priests in this novel are little more than absurd caricatures, and portraying them as ravenous pedophiles seems a bit too convenient.  Parts of his grandmother's back story also seem a bit too close to something you would come across in a Toni Morrison novel.  This novel seems stitched together from many disparate parts, and one longs for the kind of voice heard in "Push."

"The Kid" not only tries to be deep, but also to be shocking and socially conscious at the same time.  It fails on all counts.  The unresolved, unexplained contradictions which make up the protagonist's personality mediate against any depth that might have been achieved.  The shock value of this novel disappears somewhere after the second beating and the third rape.  And any sense of social consciousness is diminished by the very real faults of the family that lie at the center of this story.  How can we blame society for a woman who gets pregnant at 10, has a mentally retarded daughter, and allows this daughter to marry a man who would later father a son by his own daughter?  My point is that we could hold society accountable for this, but the way in which Sapphire tells the story will not allow us to do so.  The author has failed to negotiate that fine line between individual and collective responsibility, and in the absence of such negotiation we are left with characters that one cannot sympathize with, and a society which is almost entirely blameless.

The last 1/4 of this book, however, is actually pretty good, but by then the story and the characters that inhabit it have worn out their welcome.  This is really too bad, since the section detailing My Lai's personal history would have made a great short story.  The character of Abdul Jamal also seems to coalesce near the end, but it's as if the remaining 3/4 of the book was about someone else, someone much harder to relate to.

"The Kid" tries to be a good book, but fails.  A particularly damaging feature of the novel is that it mentions Charles Dickens, who wrote "Oliver Twist," a much better book that covers similar territory.  In "Oliver Twist" we see a novel that is deep with human drama, which continues to shock, and which points out social ills which are still prevalent today.  In "The Kid" we see a book that aspires to such heights, but can't get above ground level.

2013年11月8日 星期五

"Blindness" by Jose Saramago (1997)

"...we'll all be contaminated, there cannot be a single person who has not been within sight of a blind man, If a blind man cannot see, I ask myself, how can he transmit this disease through his sight, General, this must be the most logical illness in the world, the eye that is blind transmits the blindness to the eye that sees, what could be simpler, We have a colonel here who believes the solution would be to shoot the blind as soon as they appear, Corpses instead of blind men would scarcely improve the situation, To be blind is not the same as being dead, Yes, but to be dead is to be blind, So there are going to be about two hundred of them, Yes, And what shall we do with the lorry-drivers, Put them inside as well.  That same day, in the late afternoon, the Ministry of Defence contacted the Ministry of Health, Would you like to hear the latest news, that colonel we mentioned earlier has gone blind, It'll be interesting to see what he thinks of that bright idea of his now, He already thought, he shot himself in the head, Now that's what I call a consistent attitude, The army is always ready to show an example."

"Blindness" was written in Portuguese in 1995.  The English translation appeared two years later.  The author, now deceased, received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In an unidentified town in an unidentified country, a plague of blindness strikes everyone indiscriminately.  It begins with a driver at a local intersection, and spreads outward to engulf the country and possibly also the world.  The government, sent into a panic, places several of the first victims into an abandoned insane asylum, and the victims' story of survival comprises the remainder of the book.

"Blindness" is the most unrelentingly depressing book I have ever read.  It starts with people going blind in the streets, and goes downhill quickly from there.  Some of the episodes in the insane asylum are truly stomach-churning, and throughout the internee's confinement there is no hope of a cure.

It's a good book, if a bit repetitive.  I also had trouble believing that one of the inmates could develop gangrene from a stabbing with a shoe in less than two days.  It made me wonder at the tenacity with which EVERYONE in the book clings to life.  I'm sure that in the midst of such despair, someone would be ready to give up, call it a day, go to their great reward, etc.  Particularly disturbing is the group rape scene about 3/4 through the book - I know that scene wasn't in the movie!

I would recommend this book, but reading it will ruin your day.  After a few pages you'll be thinking about death, and blindness, and the futility of just about everything, and I wouldn't want that for you.  Perhaps we are all blind to some extent, but I would rather think of this blindness as a blessing.

2013年11月3日 星期日

"I Drink for a Reason" by David Cross (2010)

David Cross is a comedian, actor, and writer of TV shows.  He also wrote this book.

And I would have quoted said book, but any such quote, taken out of context, is only half as funny.  

This book is hilarious.  I'm not a huge fan of Cross's stand up, but this book had me rolling around on the floor, crying.  Seriously.  It's that funny.

Below is a clip of his stand up, which has its moments, but isn't nearly as funny as this book.  

The End.

2013年11月2日 星期六

"The Demolished Man" by Alfred Bester (1953)

"'No.  I mean something else.  Three or four hundred years ago, cops used to catch people like Reich just to kill them.  Capital punishment, they called it.'

"'You're kidding.'

"'Scout's honor.'

"'But it doesn't make sense.  If a man's got the talent and guts to buck society, he's obviously above average.  You want to hold on to him.  You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value.  Why throw him away?  Do that enough and all you've got left are the sheep.'

"'I don't know.  Maybe in those days they wanted sheep.'"

"The Demolished Man" was the first novel ever to win science fiction's Hugo Award.  It was written during science fiction's "golden age" (the 50s), and the author had many stories published in the pulp magazines of his day.

Aside from the typographical flourishes which probably made "The Demolished Man" seem very modern at the time, it's a pretty good book.  The plot concerns itself with Ben Reichs' attempt to murder a business competitor in an age of telepaths.  He concocts an elaborate scheme involving outmoded weaponry, the collusion of telepathic friends, and an advertising jingle which helps shield his mind from those who would attempt to read it.

It's fairly plausible, though the author betrays an astonishing faith in psychiatric medicine, and this faith is grounded upon theories which are no longer popular.  It is also difficult to believe that a telepath, no matter how gifted, could rise to a position of authority with something as serious as schizophrenia hanging over his head.  There is, moreover, a ridiculous scene near the end where a woman mentally regresses into childhood, and the detective has to raise her back to adulthood over a period of three weeks.

All in all, "The Demolished Man" is historic enough and eccentric enough to be interesting.  If you're a fan of older science fiction, I would recommend it.