Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet - Books One and Two

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Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet - Books One and Two (Marvel, 2016)
Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Illustrator: Brian Stelfreeze
Colorist: Laura Martin
Letterer: Joe Sabino

One of my New Year's resolutions was to get through my huge backlog of reading material, which by necessity entails NOT adding even more books to my already-overstocked reading list. Which is why I can't say that I planned to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' newest addition to the Marvel Universe, it just kind of happened one day when I saw these sweet-looking comics on display at my local library, just sitting there... tempting me... with their topicality and sick cover-art and Ta-Nehisi's name up there on the cover like some big... tempty thing.

Besides, I'd never read a Black Panther comic before, so I figured it'd be an interesting new experience. It's background reading, so you can appreciate the movie better, I told myself. It'll count as "doing something for Black History Month" or whatever.

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This being part of the Marvel Universe, the tale begins in medias res - or rather, ex post facto: Wakanda, the African nation of which T'Challa (a.k.a. the Black Panther) is king, has just endured a series of deadly calamities: a Biblical flood instigated by Namor the Sub-Mariner, an invasion by Thanos, and a coup d'état by Doctor Doom which left T'Challa's sister Shuri, the previous Black Panther, trapped between life and death. The country is in chaos, and many Wakandans feel that their king has failed to protect them, and that therefore he "is no king at all". The sorcerer Tetu and his mind-witch Zenzi feel that monarchy has served Wakanda poorly, and so they stir up anti-royal, pro-democratic sentiment among T'Challa's subjects to fuel their Nigandan-backed revolution. Meanwhile, two of the Dora Milaje (the king's all-female honor guards) have gone rogue: after Aneka murders a serial rapist in an extra-judicial killing and is sentenced to death for undermining the rule of law, her lover Ayo steals a pair of prototype exoskeletons and breaks Aneka out of prison. Dubbing themselves the Midnight Angels, the two set off on an anti-rape rampage across Wakanda's lawless hinterlands, murdering bandit-kings and sexually-abusive patriarchs without trial or mercy. T'Challa is forced to hunt down and apprehend two of his own beloved and loyal servantswomen with whom he agrees on the righteousness of their cause, in theory if not in practicein order to preserve the rule of law in his own kingdom.

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One of the things I really like about A Nation Under Our Feet is that no one could really be called a "villain", at least not in the traditional, mustache-twirling sense. Sure, there are minor characters like the White Gorilla and Zeke Stane (son of the villain from the first Iron Man movie) who you just love to hate, but for the most part all of the people working against Black Panther have sympathetic goals, even if we don't agree with their methods. What American reader could hear about an attempt to overthrow a hereditary monarchy and replace it with democracy and not feel at least a little affinity for their cause? What person with a heart could hear about systematic rapists being murdered by the very women they abused without feeling at least a twinge of poetic justice? Much like Game of Thrones, the reader is never sure who to root for, because we know that victory for one side means defeat for another faction with which we sympathize.

In fact, Coates makes us wonder for a while whether T'Challa is even the guy we're supposed to be rooting for. In Book Two, in a desperate attempt to restore order to his rapidly-disintegrating country by any means necessary, T'Challa recruits a consultancy team made up of the worst of the world's leaders: men who employ spies and torturers and even outright terrorism against their own people to maintain their own fragile grasp on power... and he asks them for their advice! T'Challa even uses nanobot technology of questionable origin (i.e., Doctor Doom) to enhance his own search for his sister's wayward soul. Speaking of whom, Book Two is interlaced with Shuri's story, as her soul journeys through the Djalia, the spiritual plane of Wakandan memory, where she learns the history of her people from a griot-spirit while simultaneously coming into her own, truer self. Book Two also sees the Panther teaming up with The Crew, an all-Black team of superheroes including Luke Cage and Storm, who help T'Challa raid a terrorist hideout in the grand, over-the-top, bullets-flying-in-your-face tradition of the very finest blaxploitation films of the 1970s.

At times, the use of Wakandan vocabulary was confusing. Words like jabari, mjinga, and jambazi are just tossed off by the cast without any explanation or easy way to look them up. At first I thought I could guess what they meant from context, but I kept coming across clues that made me think I had got it wrong. I realize that this is how people talk, without constantly explaining themselves, but a Wakandan dictionary, or a glossary at the end of the book, would have been nice.

Speaking of extras at the end of the book, both volumes feature "Process & Development" sections which include samples of character art, rough sketches of individual characters and entire pages, and excerpts from Coates' script. These bonuses are kind of interesting, but they won't really teach you anything new about how comic books get made.

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Finally, each volume ends with reprints of classic Black Panther issues. Book One includes the Panther's first-ever appearance in Fantastic Four #52, a fun romp through a techno-organic jungle populated with deafeningly-bright primary colors and Jack Kirby's trippy, mechano-fantastic visuals. Book Two concludes with two issues of Panther's Rage, a 1973 adventure-tale which is extremely, at times hilariously, 80s. The main villain, Erik Killmonger (yes, that's his actual surname), is a bare-chested, spike-wearing, whip-wielding African giant who appears to dunk his entire head in a bucket of Soul-Glo every morning.

think this is the first time the Black Panther has had both a Black writer and a Black illustrator at the same time, though I can't swear to that. Either way, Coates and Stelfreeze work well together, and I look forward to seeing more from this pairing. Coates' storytelling is excellent (A Nation Under Our Feet was nominated for a Hugo award for Best Graphic Story), but there are occasional resorts to well-worn comic book cliches (faked deaths, infodumps, deliberately misleading the reader, etc.) to heighten drama. I also found the story in Book One a little difficult to follow; I had to read it twice before I fully understood all the players and their various motivations, but Book Two flowed much better, once all the exposition was out of the way.

Overall, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet is a rollicking adventure yarn which doubles as subtle political commentary. Under the guise of discussing the myriad troubles which beset this fictional African country, Coates surreptitiously introduces and explores topics which are near and dear to his heart, such as internalized racism, statecraft and kingship, and what it is that truly makes a country (and its king) great:
T'CHALLA: The day after I became king, [my uncle] S'Yan offered a single piece of wisdom. "Power lies not in what a king does, but in what his subjects believe he might do." This was profound. For it meant that the majesty of kings lay in their mystique... not in their might. Every act of might diminished the king, for it diminished his mystique. Might exposed the king's powers and thus his limits. Might made the king human. Breakable. [...] [W]hat the people know not is the true power of kings.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

[Book Review] The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
by Matt Ridley (HarperCollins, 2010)

Written just after — and published in the midst of the the fallout from — the Great Recession of 2008, Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist is something of an aberration in the world of nonfiction prognostication: a text which, Roddenberry-like, dares to suggest that not only are we probably not headed for disaster, but the future will almost certainly be better than even our wildest dreams; better than we ever dared to hope.

Counter-intuitively, this is not a thought which many people enjoy entertaining. Most people (and I include myself in this statement — or at least, I used to) would like, even need, to believe that the world cannot go on without them, or at least without the particular set of circumstances which created them as individuals. These doomsayers would have us believe that the world was in a constant state of improvement until roughly the time they were born, which just so happened to be the apex of human civilization, and everything after that has been and will continue to be one long defeat.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, © Zach Weinersmith (yes, really)
Though this kind of thinking is understandable (every human being lives at what they perceive as the tail-end of history), Mr. Ridley makes some pretty compelling arguments why this conclusion is fallacious. For one, we can look back on the last 100,000 years of history and see that life has steadily gotten better in every way we can measure. Compared to the first members of Homo sapiens (or heck, even our parents and grandparents) modern humans eat better, live longer, have fewer chronic diseases, are less likely to die from violence, reproduce less, produce more food using less land, extract more energy from less fuel, and generally live better lives than ever before in our species' millennia of existence. Granted, this progress hasn't always been fast, and it never happens evenly across the entire population, but even the poorest human on earth today lives a life which is measurably better than that of the earliest hominids; even pre-contact tribes of the remote Amazon have bows and arrows, stone tools, and fire. It is the height of arrogance, the author asserts, to look back on this steady and ceaseless march of progress and conclude that the future must hold nothing but ruin and degeneracy (and to be honest, despite my natural inclination towards pessimism, I find myself agreeing with him almost against my will).

The Rational Optimist is broken down into eleven chapters, which trace the arc of human history in roughly chronological from our early hominid predecessors (like Homo erectus and neanderthals) all the way to the Singularity of the near-future. The author's main thesis is that all human progress comes from ideas "having sex" with each other: that it the process of exchange and cross-fertilization which gives birth to new ideas and technologies, allowing us to raise our standard of living in ways that other tool-using animals do not. "Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution", Ridley asserts in the prologue.

Ridley also makes the assertion that the dominance of Homo sapiens stems from the fact that we are the only animal which trades, which exchanges like for unlike. Other animals exchange food and grooming and sex in the hopes of reciprocal food, grooming, and/or sex at a later date, but only humans exchange sex for food, or food for tools, or one type of food for a different foodstuff. This tendency toward exchange and specialization allows us to draw on our species' collective brain, instead of being trapped by the endless treadmill of self-reliance. A self-sufficient hunter-gatherer must spend all of his mental energy on filling his head with the million-and-one things he needs to know in order to get enough calories by himself; conversely, a fisherman and a farmer can use trade and specialization so that each of them eats a more varied and healthier diet and has more leisure time (which they can use to consume more and provide employment to yet more people) without either having the faintest how the other plies his trade.

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Ridley goes on to point out that despite its Ferengi-esque reputation, commerce has done more good for humanity than almost any other force in history. Slavery was one of our earliest inventions, but it was the steam-engine which abolished the slave trade by making it no longer profitable. Brutal, appalling cruelty towards both humans and animals was a (if not the) major form of entertainment in the pre-industrial world, but once our economic well-being no longer depended on human- and animal-powered labor, bloodsports became unacceptable. Ridley opines that "Political decisions are by definition monopolistic, disenfranchising, and despotically majoritarian; markets are good at supplying minority needs."

In the final chapter, Ridley lays out his case for optimism about our future. This is where lots of optimists falter, and their two biggest stumbling-blocks are usually African poverty and global warming. Ridley soberly and realistically assesses both these issues, and not only finds cause for hope, but goes so far as to say that not only should we not despair of these twin terrors of the future, it is our moral duty to continue to believe that things can get better. The moment we stop believing that things can improve is the moment the world's most desperately poor and underprivileged cease being able to claw their way out of poverty. Ridley says "It is precisely because there is still far more suffering and scarcity in the world than I or anybody else with a heart would wish that ambitious optimism is morally mandatory. [...] those who offer counsels of despair or calls to slow down in the face of looming environmental disaster may not only be factually but morally wrong."

Now for the stuff I didn't agree with.

Ridley has a pretty dim view of religion and of the state — to him, priests and politicians are "tiresome fellow[s]" at best, and "parasites" at worst (which I guess they are at the worst of times, but I think it ignores a lot of nuance, and at their best I do believe that they can make tangible improvements to a great many human lives). It worries me that he doesn't hold with the conventional wisdom that global warming will devastate our planet's food supply and economy (though he does admit that resettling all those billions of people who live in future flood-zones will be expensive, and likely contentious), pointing out that just a few decades ago, scientists were sounding the alarms because global cooling, which they said would also devastate our planet's food supply and economy. Also concerning is that he's extremely gung-ho about genetic modification as a future food source, a bandwagon I'm not quite ready to jump on just yet. I fear that he may be overestimating humanity's tolerance for change and improvement, but so far we've done a pretty good job of adapting to some really spectacular levels of change and chaos — after all, we've made it through the Warring States period, the Dark Ages, the Black Death, two World Wars, and the Cold War without blowing it all up, haven't we?

While I might not yet be 100% on board with the optimism bandwagon, The Rational Optimist has achieved something remarkable: it has demolished or damaged most of the arguments I previously used as justification for my pessimistic cynicism. For decades, I've assumed the worst about the future and humanity, but Matt Ridley has pointed out an uncomfortable truth: that my pessimism turns out to be unnecessary and incorrect a lot more often than I'd like to believe. It feels kind of weird to think about the future and experience neither stomach-churning fear nor bitter pessimism, but it's a feeling I could get used to. Pessimism is a habit I've had for a long, long time, and being without it (even though I never enjoyed it) feels kind of strange, like suddenly regrowing a long-lost limb.

I won't say I'm an optimist now, but I can't say I'm a pessimist anymore. And isn't that a reason to be hopeful?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

[Movie Review] To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

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To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar
Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment, 1995
Director: Beeban Kidron
Writer: Douglas Carter Beane
Starring: Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo, Robin Williams

My wife has been trying to get me to watch this movie for years, and I'm glad I finally got around to it. I positively giggled like a schoolgirl; I challenge you to watch Wesley Snipes giggling maniacally while slipping into a pair of black thigh-high nylons, and not be tempted to giggle yourself.

It felt really, deliciously weird to see extremely masculine actors (who — need I remind you — respectively played the eponymous vampire-hunting protagonist of the Blade trilogy and longtime hetero sex-symbol Johnny from Dirty Dancing) playing ultra-feminine drag queens. What's more, these drag-queens are most fabulous drag queens in New York: Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) are finalists in a drag competition in NYC, and earn the right to continue on to the finals, which will take place in Hollywood in just a few days' time. Pausing briefly to take the hapless "drag princess" Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) under their wing, before heading off on a cross-country road trip from the Big Apple to Tinseltown... with an unplanned stop in Podunk, USA.

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"Noxeema, you remember John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt?"
"Oh yes: his name is my name, too!"
There's a really excellent cameo by the late great Robin Williams as the proprietor of New York's gayest restaurant (which is really saying something), who gives the girls a lead on a trustworthy used-car dealer when he learns they can't afford plane tickets. While his back is turned, the girls "borrow" a signed portrait of famed actress, dancer, singer, and lingerie inventor Julie Newmar, in hope that her divine favor will bless their road-trip and guide them to victory in the nationals.

The girls, of course, select the less-reliable but far more fashionable 1967 Cadillac DeVille convertible, which looks great but breaks down somewhere in the Midwest (it's never established exactly where, but I'm guessing anywhere from Ohio to Missouri [edit: apparently it was filmed in Nebraska]). Forced to wait out the weekend in B.F.E. until the replacement part arrives on Monday, the girls settle into the (as in, the only) bed-and-breakfast and proceed to spruce up the town and enhance the lives of its residents over the course of a long weekend (kind of like Thor, but with phenomenal hair and outfits).

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Actually, scratch that: it's a lot like Thor after all.
Before I get into analysis, please allow me to clarify that these characters are not women trapped in men's bodies, they are something altogether more fantastic. As Noxeema explains it,
"When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man's body and has a little operation he is a transsexual. [. . .] When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen."
While it's probably a little simplistic (to say nothing of being dated), I'm going to use this definition for the purposes of my review, because A) it's much easier than wading into the minefield that is LGBTQ nomenclature, and B) why complicate things by using a definition other than the one being used in the work you're reviewing? Anyway, moving right along...

I don't think that anyone would ever accuse Wong Foo of being overly realistic; the townsfolk are very accepting of Vida, Noxeema, and Chi-Chi right off the bat, despite what would probably be seen in real life as repeated attempts to impose big-city relativism on traditional small-town values. IRL, the girls would probably get run out of town just for trying to insert themselves into the residents private lives and business. Though personally I'd say that stopping domestic violence and putting paid to sexual harassers and would-be rapists would fall more into the "civic sanitation" category, but that's just one man's opinion.

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The first and second acts are full of shots like this one, in which "the girls" visibly inject bright color into an otherwise dull world of grays, sun-bleaching, and earth-tones.
Like its protagonists, To Wong Foo seems to care more about style than substance. Please understand that I don't mean this in a bad way: I'm not saying that the movie lacks depth or emotional power. I'm saying that while the plot it offers is not likely to occur in the real world, it offers an idealized, artificially-constructed alternate reality, in which diversity is not just accepted but celebrated, where the banal is cast off in favor of the fabulous, and where getting out of a rut is as easy as changing your outfit and wig.

Hmm... stern, cold reality taking a backseat to airy, extravagant, self-conscious artifice? That sounds exactly like a drag queen to me. :-)

Sunday, January 21, 2018

[Movie Review] Fried Green Tomatoes

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Director: Jon Avnet
Producers: Jon Avnet, Norman Lear
Writers: Fannie Flagg, Carol Sobieski
Based upon: the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg
Starring: Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary-Louise Parker, Cicely Tyson

This was actually the second or third time I've watched what Manjula Nahasapeemapetilon famously called her "favorite book, movie, and food". Since this film is so well-known (and so old), and since I'm not recording my first thoughts on the subject, I'm going to try something a little different for this review. Instead of summarizing the plot for you, I'm just going to launch right into some of my thoughts and musings on this rightly-famous classic of American cinema.

If you've never seen it, I'd like to take this opportunity to issue a SPOILER WARNING (though I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired by now).

The first thing that struck me about this movie was how quickly we're made to feel a strong emotional attachment to Buddy: in the space of a single scene, we're introduced to this caring and loving older brother to tomboyish Idgie (and beau to the young and beautiful Ruth), made to understand that he is a caring and loving individual, charming and sweet besides, and to appreciate his gift for both storytelling and chivalry -- which, of course, leads to his heart-wrenching demise at the wheels of an oncoming train.

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"C'mon, Buddy! Get out! Get outta there!"

When Buddy dies, we're mainly led to feel bad for Ruth and Idgie, but I had never before considered the fact that Idgie's father nearly bankrupted himself to pay for her older sister's wedding, which was to take place later that day -- a wedding which said older sister feared would be "ruined" by Idgie's unladylike behavior, but was instead ruined by the unexpected and brutal death of the family's oldest son, just yards away from the family home. Not only did this tragedy leave both Idgie and Ruth emotionally scarred, it also ruined what was supposed to be the happiest day of her older sister's life, and must have resulted in the total loss of nearly all of the considerable sum her father expended on the wedding and its paraphernalia (the movie never does say whether the wedding was rescheduled, but I hope it was, because otherwise Buddy's death would cast a black cloud over the older sister's wedding anniversaries in perpetuity -- which I admit seems kind of small compared to the loss of a son and brother, but it is another twist of the knife nonetheless).

Preach, sister.

Speaking of knives, Big George must love Idgie a lot if he's willing to threaten -- albeit indirectly -- a white man in 1920s Alabama. George would have known he was taking his life (and possibly the lives of his family) into his hands when he pulled the knife from his pocket and began nonchalantly trimming his nails with it, though I suspect that seeing a man push his pregnant wife down a flight of stairs probably lent him courage. However, I thought it was a little unrealistic that any man, no matter how big and strong he is, could endure a horse-whipping from a Klansman without even grunting, let alone crying out in pain. I mean, it's an autonomic response: you can't help but scream when someone uses a strip of rough leather, moving at supersonic speeds, to take chunks out of your back. There's no shame in crying out, but I felt that George's stoicism made him seem a little passive, even animalistic, in his refusal (or inability?) to use his voice to cry out in pain.

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"Oh, don't mind me. Nothin' to see here."
I also paid more attention to the character of Smokey Lonesome, the palsied drifter whom Idgie and Ruth take under their wing. As a younger person I felt bad for him, but I never really thought about how difficult his life in the rural South must have been, in an era before the ADA and physical therapy, an era where harassing beggars and cripples was an acceptable pastime for both children and adults. For a man who's been so beaten-down by life, I realized for the first time what tremendous courage and love Smokey must have had, to be willing to stand up to Frank Bennet -- a young, strong, fit man, a man whom Smokey knew to be a Klansman and a wife-beater -- and tell him that he "ain't goin' nowhere with Miss Ruth's baby." There was every possibility that Frank Bennet would have killed him just for being a witness, let alone actually trying to prevent him from leaving with his infant son.

Finally, I was once again shocked by how cavalier everyone is about the whole issue of covering up a murder (of an admittedly horrible person) with HUMAN CANNIBALISM! I understand that they didn't have a lot of options for disposing of Frank's body, but Sheriff Smoote wasn't the only person who ate those ribs! Idgie and Co. fed a human corpse to their unsuspecting customers! And when Ninny Threadgoode explains to Evelyn exactly how clever Ruth and Idgie tricked the mean old sheriff into eating the evidence, instead of being horrified, Evelyn laughs, like she's just been let in on some hilarious joke!

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Actually, I take it all back. The bastard had it coming.
Despite this dose of third-act squick, Fried Green Tomatoes remains, in my opinion, one of the most excellent stories ever committed to film. Idgie and Ruth's passionate friendship -- which was apparently an outright lesbian romance in the book -- is one of the most sensitive and nuanced portrayals of female solidarity and love that I've ever encountered in film or print. The long, stationary shot of Ruth's last moments (juxtaposed with Idgie's poignant, tear-filled retelling of Buddy's story about The Lake That Used To Be Here) can still bring a tear to even the most jaundiced eye. So dust off your VHS collection, pop this old gem into your VCR, and give it another try: after all, who doesn't love taking a big, crunchy bite out of a freshly fried green tomato?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

[Movie Review] Dinner With Friends (HBO Films, 2001)

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Dinner with Friends
HBO Films, 2001
Director: Norman Jewison
Writers: Donald Margulies (play, teleplay)
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell, Greg Kinnear, Toni Colette

When my mom cleaned out her DVD collection, I decided to take a look and see if there was anything in the "donate box" that interested me; this title was one of my finds. I had never watched it before, didn't know anything about it (though I could take a wild guess that it would involve a group of friends, and at least one dinner), so I went in essentially blind.

The establishing shot brings us to the home of professional food-writers Gabe (Dennis Quaid) and Karen (Andie MacDowell), who are in the midst of preparing dinner for their longtime friends Tom (Greg Kinnear) and Beth (Toni Collette). The doorbell rings, but it's only Beth and her kids; no Tom in sight. While the two couples' kids watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on VHS in the next room, Beth bursts unexpectedly into tears and confesses that she and she and Tom are getting a divorce, and that he's leaving her for another woman. Gabe and Karen are stunned: they've known Tom and Beth since before their kids were born, how could they just split up like this? Karen is furious with Tom's infidelity, while Gabe takes a more hurt-and-bewildered approach, wanting to hear the husband's side of the story (which of course makes his wife even angrier that he would even consider listening to "that philanderer"). Tom, upset to learn that Beth has stolen a march on him by telling their friends about their breakup without him, hurries over to explain himself, but finds himself bewlidered by a distinct coolness, even lack of sympathy, from two of his oldest friends. Act One concludes with both couples dealing with the fallout in their own ways: one through an argument about forgiveness and hypothetical infidelity, the other through a shouting-match which unexpectedly metamorphoses into passionate hate-sex.

Next, we're taken on a flashback to twelve years previously, when Gabe and Karen first introduced Beth to Tom during a stay at their Martha's Vineyard summer home (!). The happy young couples -- one established, one new-made -- bathed in the sepia light of a summer evening, make decisions and form bonds which we (the audience) know will lead to a decade of misery, broken families, and long-term friendships dying on the vine. The result is a that everything that follows feels foreordained, like there's no way it could have been avoided or mitigated. The audience can only watch helplessly as the characters begin down roads which we know lead to profound unhappiness -- not exactly a sensation that I, personally, enjoy feeling (outside of horror stories, that is).

The story shifts forwards a few months, and we see that everything has changed; between the men, as well as between the women. Both of the new divorcées are making drastic, ill-advised changes to their lives: changes which shock and bewilder their longtime friends, making them question whether they even want to remain friends with people who suddenly seem like strangers, and forcing them to reevaluate whether their own marriage is really any stronger than the one that's just fallen apart before their very eyes.

Margulies's dialogue is realistic, with plenty of interruptions, repetitions, and idiosyncratic turns of phrase, yet dense and multilayered in that peculiar way that only stage-plays can be. While I appreciate how difficult it is to write dialogue that reveals character and moves the plot forward while still sounding natural and unrehearsed, I found that it was a little exhausting to listen to after a while. When every sentence is jam-packed with meaning, I found myself subconsciously trying to interpret and analyze as I watched, and as a result I often felt a little behind-the-curve, struggling to keep up with the oncoming barrage of dialogue and plot-points.

Despite feeling badly for the characters and their emotional/marital situations, I found that their obscene levels of wealth to be distracting, and a bit of a turn-off. Sure, it sucks that you're getting a divorce, but maybe, I don't know, your enormous piles of cash will make that a little easier to bear. Both couples live in enormous, multi-story houses in East Coast suburbia, with three-car garages and tasteful interior décor and marble counter-tops strewn with cooking magazines and fresh ingredients brought back from their most recent trip to Italy. I realize that this movie came out just before the dot-com bubble burst, that standards of wealth were a lot higher back then, but for me it felt like their characters' luxurious lifestyle was a barrier to empathy (which is sort of odd for me, because I never felt that way while watching Downton Abbey or reading The Great Gatsby).

Call it sour grapes if you like, I just couldn't get over feeling like these people were finally getting a dose of the reality that their money and prestigious occupations had insulated them against for so long. Add to that the story's depressing, futility-laced subject-matter and the fact that I just never believed Toni Collette's dry-eyed forced sobs, and you've got a recipe for a dinner which is passable the first time around, but one where I definitely won't be going back for a second helping.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

[Book Review] Covenant with the Vampire

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Covenant with the Vampire, by Jeanne Kalogridis
(The Diaries of the Family Dracul, Book One)
© 1994 Dell Horror

It's been a long time since I read Bram Stoker's Dracula, but this prequel, set fifty years before the events of that tale, brought back to me with vivid clarity the creeping dread and shocking horror of the Dracula mythos. Part of Dracula's allure is his ambiguity, his inability to be defined, the impossibility of pinning down exactly who -- or even what -- he is. Is the vampiric antagonist of Bram Stoker's 1897 Gothic horror novel truly the same person as the historical Vlad Tepesh, Vlad the Impaler, or is he just some random undead who's putting on airs? Is he even just a vampire, or does the hair on his palms and his ability to turn into a monstrous wolf make him also a werewolf?

I was a little afraid, at first, that revealing the "origins" of Count Dracula might dampen his mystique. Monsters frighten us because they represent unknown quantities; once you label and categorize them, once you assign them a backstory and a clearly delineated set of powers, they go from terrifying existential horror to monster of the week. Fortunately, revealing some (but not all) of Dracula's origins and motivations does nothing to diminish his power to terrify audiences, at least in this instance.

I was impressed and pleased to discover that Covenant with the Vampire is written, like the original Dracula, as an epistolary novel (or "novel made of letters"), with each chapter taking the form of a diary entry from one of the main characters. This use of multiple viewpoints and voices lends the novel texture, plus credibility as each character's account of events corroborates or expands upon that of the others. It also sets us up for a lot of dramatic irony: being privy to the inner thoughts of each of the main characters, we (the readers) inevitably know more than any one character is ever aware of, which means that we can only watch in mute horror as characters take actions and make decisions which we, knowing better than they, wish desperately to warn them against. The diary-entry format also gives us a sense of immediacy and urgency, as the characters explain to us where and when they are recording their thoughts: on sleepless candlelit nights, on scraps of paper stolen between visits from a nosy sister-in-law, on sunny mornings that make it difficult to trust one's own memories of the night before.

The story begins on "5 April, 1845" as Arkady Tsepesh, last male scion of the family Tsepesh (descendants of the infamous Vlad the Impaler), returns with his heavily-pregnant English wife, Mary Windham Tsepesh, to his ancestral home, Castle Dracula, following news from his deformed elder sister Zsuzsanna Tsepesh that their father has fallen gravely ill. Arkady and Mary arrive mere hours after his father's passing, and it is during the vigil for the deceased that we catch our first glimpse of Great-Uncle Vlad.

As you've probably guessed already, "Great-Uncle" Vlad is really more
of a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle.
Over the course of a mere two weeks in the Transylvanian mountains, Ms. Kalogridis ever-so-slowly peels back the façade of normalcy, revealing a world of incest, torture, mass-murder, and of deals with devils both figurative and literal. As Arkady learns more and more of Great-Uncle Vlad's peculiar behaviors and future goals (e.g., moving to England with its "teeming millions"), and Mary begins to listen with increasing credulity to the whispers of the servants, and Zsuzsanna begins to attract -- and even to invite -- the sexual attentions of her wicked uncle, the net which entraps our characters within Castle Dracula and its estate grows ever-tighter. Mary's complicated pregnancy (to say nothing of the castle's extreme isolation and Vlad's increasingly controlling nature) prevents them from leaving freely, and so husband and wife are forced to bide their time and pay homage to a monster in their midst, a wolf in boyar's clothing.

"You look different, Uncle Vlad: have you done something with your heir?"
As Vlad begins to feed with greater regularity, he transforms from a decrepit relic into a terrifying patriarch; likewise, Castle Dracula itself transforms from Arkady's beloved-though-gloomy childhood home to a macabre prison, filled with and surrounded by secrets and death. As Vlad begins to seduce his many-times-removed grand-niece, we are given a firsthand account of what it actually feels like to become strigoi, in all the sensual and incestuous details -- though on a technical note, does it still count as incest if she's eleven generations removed from you? (Actually, don't answer that.)

As Arkady explores the estate and its grounds in pursuit of fleeting glimpses of his long-dead brother Stefan, he makes a grisly discovery in the woods beside Castle Dracula which results in what the old Ravenloft setting would call "a malign paradigm-shift", in which everything he knew, or thought he knew, about his uncle, his family, and the very nature of reality itself comes crashing down around his head. I can't tell you any more without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that if you're a fan of the creepy, the macabre, and the outright horrifying, Covenant with the Vampire will amply satisfy your disgusting predilections (you nasty little pervert, you).

As readers, our foreknowledge of what ultimately happens in Bram Stoker's Dracula -- that any attempts to kill Dracula are doomed to failure, that he must produce at least three "brides" and turn poor, mad Renfield into his creature, that at some point his mortal servants must abandon him and his castle to fall to ruins -- has the effect of producing great dramatic tension. We know that these things must occur in order for Stoker's narrative to make sense, but knowing that the blows must come but not knowing how or when they will fall, or in which order, may be the cruelest torture of all. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Stranger Things, Season 1 (Netflix, 2016)

Image result for stranger things season 1

Yes, I realize that I'm a little behind-the-times reviewing this one (okay, a lot behind-the-times). In fact, that kind of shock at my total lack of pop-culture knowledge is kind of the reason I watched Stranger Things in the first place. When my brother-in-law realized that my wife (his sister) and I had never seen the show, he immediately went out and bought it for us on DVD as his Christmas present to us. We decided to start watching it on New Year's Eve, but we planned to space out our viewings, only watching one or two episodes a day. You know, in order to really soak it up instead of just bingeing and being done with the whole thing in a day or two.

Turns out, even the idea of stretching it out to two days was some serious pie-in-the-sky thinking. We could barely wait long enough to go to the bathroom between episodes, and waiting to switch in the next disc felt like long-term deprivation. The series grabs you by the balls right from scene one and never lets go, not for a single moment. The whole first season feels like one long balls-to-the-wall thrill-ride (in a good way) interspersed with moments of heart-pounding, tingly-palmed dread (again, in a good way), with an occasional dose of comedy to lighten the sometimes-oppressive mood. 

I won't bother giving you a blow-by-blow of the first episode -- that's easy enough for find online, though I would caution against digging too deeply for fear of spoilers. Instead, I'd rather talk about the show's overall structure, and the various media from which it draws inspiration.

Not pictured: parental supervision.
Stranger Things begins on the night of November 6, 1983, with the mysterious disappearance of one twelve-year-old boy, and chronicles the fallout from this and other paranormal goings-on in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. The cast is divided into three largely-distinct groups (tweens, teens, and adults) who discover/encounter disparate facets of the strange events occurring in their town, but -- like the blind men and the elephant -- none ever have the whole picture (at least, not at first). The result of this splitting-up is to create a narrative which sometimes feels like three separate shows which share a setting and thematic elements, which cross into each others' realms with increasing frequency as the various investigators begin to share information and fit their pieces together. Imagine that Buffy and Angel had been spliced together into a single show and you wouldn't be far from the mark.

Tonally, Stranger Things feels like a mashup of Freaks and Geeks and The Goonies (if they'd both been written by Stephen King, that is), plus a little bit of E.T., John Carpenter's The Thing, pacing and visual elements from Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, and maybe just a dash of... I don't know, Akira? Maybe some Parasyte? A bit of Alien and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Maybe I'm getting too deep in the weeds here, trying to pin down everything the Duffer Brothers referenced. There are no new stories, after all, and it's completely natural for elements of an author's best beloved stories to show up in an author's work. Besides, nostalgic shout-outs must always take a backseat to story and character development.

Related image
You might not be afraid of Christmas lights yet, but you will be.
You will be.
First and foremost, Stranger Things is a scary story, of the type that humans have told around campfires since time immemorial in order to scare the bejeezus out of each other. Throughout the constant twisting and turning of the plot, the falsehoods exposed, the hidden pasts uncovered and dark truths revealed, Stranger Things keeps returning to the time-tested standbys of classic horror: the atmosphere of foreboding, the darkly-hinted clues of a sinister presence, nigh-unbearable escalation of tension, the masterfully-executed jumpscare, and of course, the horrifying reveal. I can't tell you much about what's actually horrifying here, because not knowing is what makes it so damn scary. Much of the supernatural elements of Stranger Things are never explained in full, and the viewer is left to extrapolate and wonder, to think about and to worry, as you turn out the lights and pull the covers up to your chin:

What the hell was it that I just saw? 

Is it really gone, or was it just pretending?

And could it come back?

Pleasant dreams, readers. I'll let you know how Season 2 turns out.